Guest Opinion: Where should Port draw line on oil?

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What is really going on with that Port of Seattle lease with Foss Maritime? Port Commissioners have been getting an earful from environmental leaders upset that one of Foss’ customers, Shell Oil, will be storing Arctic oil exploratory vessels at Terminal 5 in Seattle over the next few winters. They are demanding that the port cancel the short-term lease with Foss in order to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic.

There are a number of issues and complexities wrapped up in the controversy, from climate change to the Obama administration’s energy policy, the future viability of the Port of Seattle’s seaport, and local high-level connections with the Department of the Interior, which makes the off-shore oil drilling leasing decisions. There is also the need for the port to generate revenue with a temporary use in order to reinvest and be more competitive for marine cargo, while improving stormwater runoff. And, of course, port commissioners are caught between assisting a long-time, even iconic maritime business and working with environmental supporters.

It helps to understand a bit about Foss, its company history and corporate ethic. Thea Foss started Foss in what is now the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma 125 years ago. The company has a global reach in addition to the visible presence of their green and white tug boats – the original colors of the first row boat sold by Thea over a century ago.

Foss is also an environmental leader in the industry, building the world’s first low-emissions hybrid tugboat in 2008, converting another tug, the Campbell Foss, to hybrid in 2011. The entire fleet has been switched to ultra-low sulfur diesel since 2007, and vessels use plug-in electric power – called “cold ironing” – at all of their docks and shipyards, to further limit diesel emissions.

Like all of Puget Sound’s unique mix of maritime companies, Foss has grown and prospered in large part because of our proximity to Alaska. Over the last century, Puget Sound companies have supplied Alaskans with heavy equipment, provisioning and employees (Crosscut’s Steve Dunphy recently detailed the importance of our trading relationship with Alaska).

Understanding the close relationship between Puget Sound and Alaska is important in order to put in perspective the current controversy surrounding the port. The ports of Puget Sound, including Sea-Tac International Airport, are connected to all aspects of the Alaskan economy – including oil and natural gas.

There are larger implications to the argument that the port should not lease empty terminal space to Foss, because they are working with Shell Oil. For instance, should the ports only do business with companies and people not connected to the oil industry in Alaska? Should Alaskan oil field workers be put on a no-fly list out of Sea-Tac Airport?

What about fishing and container shipping? There are those that are considered bad actors in every industry – or nation – with which we trade. Is the port responsible for all of the corporate citizenship of all their tenants’ customers?

Somebody or some interest group will always find something wrong with one company or another that passes through the port. The port’s contractual relationship, however, is with the holder of the lease, not the companies that may have a relationship with the lease holder.

But some would ask: Wouldn’t stopping the lease to Foss prevent Shell from offshore oil exploration in the Arctic? The short answer is, no.

The environmental groups opposing the lease have held several press conferences recently and provided searing comments about the port commissioners approving the lease to Foss. In many of their comments, they said the port had the power to stop Shell from going forward with their plans in the Arctic.

But what has been omitted is really interesting – and somewhat confusing.

Nowhere has it been said by any of the leaders that the decision to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic is being made by the Obama administration and Seattle’s own, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. In fact, the same week the controversy blew up, Secretary Jewell and the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a press release detailing the administration’s plans.

Secretary Jewell is quoted in the release saying, “We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique environment, so we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” said Jewell. “At the same time, the President is taking thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska Natives and wildlife.”

This is a draft program and a work in progress. This is where the decisions are being made. That is why it is curious that in all the press conferences, all the public attacks on the port and the discussion of the coming lawsuit, Secretary Jewell has not once been mentioned locally. It can only be because one of two reasons. Either the environmental leaders don’t understand how these decisions are made and somehow missed the press release (even though national environmental groups are urging members to write to Jewell to influence her decision). Or they dare not offend Secretary Jewell because of her influence and her support and ties to environmental organizations here.

The answer seems pretty obvious.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.