Protestors not giving up on foiling Shell's Seattle moorage plans

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As part of a 2011 coal port protest, environmentalists projected this image in different iconic locations around the city. Credit: Marcus Donner/ Rainforest Action Network

The issue has all the elements of dramatic cinema: a beautiful coastal city, Arctic drilling, business leaders anxious to compete in the global maritime industry and an outraged group of protestors concerned about climate change. Throw in a lawsuit and the drama is at fever pitch with Seattle the backdrop for much of the scenario.

On Monday, the Mayor asked for a review of the city's shoreline development permits for oil rigs traveling through Puget Sound. On Tuesday, a largely irate crowd testified before Port of Seattle commissioners and executives. And on Friday a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental organizations will have its first hearing.

The source of all this drama: The Port of Seattle recently signed a lease with local maritime industry giant Foss Maritime to facilitate Shell's Arctic drilling fleet. The lease could take affect as soon as late March if the Department of Interior grants Shell necessary permits to resume drilling in the Arctic this summer. Interior is expected to make the decision the week of March 23rd. The Port of Seattle says the two-year lease will buy them time to retrofit the terminal to be used for bigger ships so they can compete in the global maritime industry.

Those opposed to the lease agreement see it as facilitating environmental destruction and climate change, and have vowed to stop it. At the Tuesday port meeting, protestor Zarna Joshi set the tone among those opposed to the lease. “You are hurtling us wrecklessly into destruction,” said Joshi. “The port's number one value is to conduct business with the highest ethical standard. How is it ethical to make our city and our port party to a crime against our planet?”

“Arctic oil must remain under the ground to stop destructive climate change, just like fossil fuels all over the world,” said Joshi, as the crowd snapped fingers and clapped in approval.

Public testimony ran six-to-one against the lease, with 65 people testifying against it and 10 in favor. Those opposed included retirees concerned about the future they were leaving their grandchildren, students and representatives of environmental organizations who've long opposed Arctic drilling.

Those in favor included members of the maritime and shipping industry, including Eric Schinfeld with the Washington Council on International Trade. Schinfeld's primary concern was keeping the port competitive.

“We're seeing a number of global trends and shipping changes and with it a transition to bigger ships,” he said. The two-year lease the port has signed with Foss Maritime to facilitate Shell's Arctic fleet, he explained, will give the port time to retrofit the terminal for much larger ships.

“They're almost three football fields long and terminals literally can't accommodate them,” Schinfeld said.

Susan Lubetkin, who identified herself as a 20-year Seattle resident and mother of four with a PhD from the University of Washington in Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management, said she had the chance to travel to the Arctic last September. “I have a visceral understanding of the melting of Arctic permafrost," she said. “I'm against this lease because this is a chance for us to make a statement that's going to have a large global impact.”

Lubetkin had several questions for the port commissioners. Terminal 5, the terminal to be used for Shell, is designated for cargo, she pointed out. “Shell's fleet includes exploration drill rigs, ice breakers, provisioning vessels, tugs and barges. How do these vessels fall under the cargo designation?” she asked.

The controversial lease was initially brought to the public's attention in January, when port executives brought the issue up among commissioners. At the time, two Port of Seattle commissioners, Tom Albro and Courtney Gregoire, asked for more scrutiny of the deal and time for public input. At this week's meeting, Commissioner Albro read a motion following public testimony that would give commissioners the authority to extend or rescind the two-year lease. The motion was co-written with Commissioner Gregoire, who was out of town on business.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of conservation groups earlier this month will have its first hearing on Friday. Lead attorney Patti Goldman calls Shell's race to drill in the Arctic, "dirty business.” “[N]ow battered vessels that have leaked oily water are being welcomed into our city,” she said.

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An ice-strengthened oil drilling vessel, the Kulluk, which Shell decided to scrap after it drifted aground while being towed. Credit: Day Donaldsen

The lawsuit charges that the lease will change the use of Terminal 5 from a cargo terminal by converting it into a home port for Shell's Arctic drilling fleet. Included in that fleet is Shell’s Noble Discoverer, a boat at the center of Shell’s disastrous last Arctic drilling attempt in 2012. In 2014, operator Noble Drilling was convicted of eight felonies and fined over $12 million after Shell's Kulluk oil rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska.

Many of the felonies, according to Goldman, were related to discharging oil-contaminated water and poorly functioning water pollution control equipment “At other times,” Goldman said, “they made a make-shift bypass that sent oil-contaminated water into the bilge and out into the ocean. There were leaks at different times. There was even an explosion on the ship.”

The port's lease agreement makes little mention of a change in use for Terminal 5, the terminal in question. Peter Goldman, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center, (no relation to Patti Goldman) was one of the first in the environmental community to raise the alarm about the lease earlier this year. He calls the deal a colossal misjudgment.

“If you open up the lease, you'll see two sentences that say we're basically acting like a cargo terminal. We're loading and unloading cargo. But that's not what's going to go on there. It's going to be more like mooring dozens of oil drilling ocean vessels and working on them, fixing them up, maintaining them ... who knows. That's what we need to know.”

Peter Phillips, publisher of Pacific Magazine and Fisherman's News, testified on the port's behalf at Tuesday's meeting. Asked about the record of the Noble Discoverer and other Shell rigs, he said, “Two years ago, Shell used contractors that were not familiar with the operating environment. They're not using those contractors anymore. They're using local and Alaska contractors who know the environment and have never made a mistake up there.”

Shell spokeperson, Curtis Smith did not respond to a request for clarification on the subject. In an email, he said, “we remain confident the Port of Seattle's lease with Foss Maritime meets all legal and regulatory requirements and will continue to withstand further legal review. We will comply with the terms of our lease. Nothing is currently contemplated for our 2015 season outside the normal activities associated with docking, loading and departing at any port.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.