When members of a city council committee unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday condemning the Port of Seattle’s two-year lease to host Arctic oil drilling equipment in Terminal 5, Shell Oil was not in the room. As a result, Seattle council members were forced to defend their condemnation not to the multi-national fossil fuel producer they skewered for profiting off of climate change, but to angry people they still clearly respect: Seattle’s working class.
News broke last January that the Port of Seattle would host oil exploration equipment owned by Shell. Not since the World Trade Organization came to town in 1999 have Seattle citizens given such an unforgiving welcome to an out of town guest.
The flames were fanned when the port’s five commissioners seemingly undersold the public comment period in advance of approving the lease. Only Commissioner Tom Albro tried to slow the process, motioning to further study the implications of such an agreement, but he didn’t even receive a second. The lease was approved in a vote.
The Seattle City Council, led in most part by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, has been largely opposed to the agreement since it became public. In an attempt to throw a wrench in the agreement’s gears, the city asked the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to investigate what was allowed at Terminal 5 and what was not.
On Monday, Mayor Ed Murray announced the DPD’s finding: Terminal 5, the department determined, is only permitted to house cargo ships that offload, load and depart. Long-term storage, as would be the case with the Shell equipment, is not allowed. The mayor said the port would need to apply for a new permit in order to house any equipment at all.
At Tuesday’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee meeting, environmentalists cheered the council’s resolution and, likewise, the mayor’s temporary block of the lease. Their general message during public comment: The port is enabling Shell’s degradation of the planet and it's the city's duty to stop it.
Seattle council audiences are not always diverse in their opinions, but on Tuesday, the environmentalists’ vehemence was nearly matched by the strong support for the agreement from Seattle’s industrial sectors.
Terminal 5 is being expanded in order to host larger and more lucrative ships, putting the port in an awkward limbo phase as it transitions. Most leases between the Port of Seattle and shipping companies are long-term – 20 to 30 years. The Shell lease is ideal for the port because, at only two years, it fills the gap until Terminal 5 is ready for larger ships
The awkwardness of this debate, one that is played out in the logging and energy industries across the state, is that while one side wants to argue on behalf of the environment, the other wants to argue on behalf of the middle class, which are certainly not diametrically opposed. During the public comment section, no environmentalists spat on labor, nor did any industry representatives deny climate change.
Joshusa Berger, the Washington Maritime Federation Coordinator at the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, said, “This is a maritime issue.” Backing out on the agreement, he said, would endanger the “long-term competitiveness and economic viability of the port.”
President of ILWU 19 Cameron Williams said the City and the mayor were “undermining the authority of the port.” And Warren Aakervik of Ballard Oil said the city was “pushing maritime business out of Seattle.”
He went on to point out the incongruity of the debate: “It’s very important to recognize that the council has worked hard to have family wage jobs.” This agreement, he said, would endanger that.
Who knows how Seattle’s most leftist Councilmembers Nick Licata, O’Brien and Kshama Sawant would have treated a representative from Shell? But to the labor representatives, they were nothing but cordial, all three offering deep respect and appreciation for their concerns. Sawant called the split between environmentalists and labor a “false dichotomy” that “Shell will use to pit labor and environmentalists against each other."
Still, the council members pressed the environmental cause. "There’s a larger question here,” said Licata, “that’s difficult to tackle in Seattle. But unless governments of our size take very public stands in addressing the dramatic and possibly catastrophic effects of climate change, we will always be passing the buck.”
Dave Gering of the Manufacturing Industrial Council sees a different reality. “Seattle is enormously dependent on tax revenue from oil,” he said. “I think it’s cutting it a little too fine for one government [the council] to be accepting that revenue and using it for the public, while telling another government [the port] that they can’t do that.”
“If the city thinks it’s morally wrong,” he said, “I think they ought to consider whether it should be taking those revenues.”
The resolution passed unanimously and will be sent to the full council and may have language from Sawant added.
Murray’s announcement Monday outshines the council’s resolution, which is little more than a show of support. Because of Murray’s decision to block the agreement, the port will need to decide whether to file a lawsuit or apply for the permit. Either route will likely delay the process, perhaps by weeks.
Despite Murray’s announcement, a flotilla of kayaktivists still plans to protest Shell's presence May 16.