Washington is the only state in the country that elects its port commissioners. So when an audience member at Tuesday’s public port commissioner meeting — focused on Shell’s ability to house Arctic oil drilling ships in Seattle — told commissioners they must answer to their constituents, she was right.
But the Port of Seattle is also uniquely distinct from the City of Seattle, functioning more like a private company than a public body. It negotiates leases with private companies who, in turn, make their own deals. It has its own taxing authority. It has a CEO.
Tensions around the port’s ambiguous identity have existed for decades. Rarely, however, has it been more apparent than at Tuesday’s jam-packed, marathon port commissioner meeting, which featured over 75 speakers and lasted over five hours.
Earlier this year, Shell inked a deal with Foss Maritime to house offshore drilling vessels at the Port’s Terminal 5, prior to a controversial oil exploration campaign in coastal Alaska. For elected officials in the City of Seattle, outcry from anti-drilling constituents has been meriting a response.
Mayor Ed Murray has been vocally opposed to the lease, and last week announced that the city’s Department of Planning and Development had ruled the lease outside the purview of their agreement. On Monday the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the port’s lease with Foss.
In response, commissioners voted on two motions at Tuesday’s port meeting. One would, essentially, appeal the city’s interpretation of the lease. The second would ask Foss to delay Shell’s arrival pending full legal review of the DPD’s decision.
Both passed, to little effect. In response to the motion asking Foss to delay its lease, Foss President Paul Stevens said he would do no such thing. “Shell will be here next week,” he said.
Murray spokesman Viet Shelton said Foss could be fined between $100-$500 a day for mooring at Terminal 5, even during the appeals process. Stevens said he was unaware of the fine.
Port commissioners have been accused of agreeing to the Shell lease in secret, with little opportunity for the public to comment. In either atonement or appeasement, Commissioner Stephanie Bowman had clearly decided to let comment Tuesday go on to the last person.
The meeting’s public commenters were roughly divided between pro and con camps. Dozens of people argued Arctic offshore drilling represented an irreversible step in the wrong direction for the environment, and the lease should be rejected on moral grounds. Others argued that doing so would set a terrible precedent for labor and the port’s business commitments.
At issue was Terminal 5’s technical designation as a “cargo terminal,” and the DPD’s ruling that Shell’s drilling equipment does not serve a “cargo function.” The port has four cargo terminals. All are located near Harbor Island, flanked by the Star Wars-style red cranes, where a large gathering of kayaking protesters is expected this weekend.
Relying on a technicality to put the brakes on the Shell project, Murray and DPD triggered a defensive reaction from shipping industry advocates and members of the port’s Board of Commissioners.
Foss’ Stevens called the decision “a dangerous precedent.” President of the Pacific Seafood Processing Association Glenn Reed said companies that lease from the Port of Seattle are nervous the entity could show itself vulnerable to political sea changes.
“A lot of people don’t like large scale fisheries,” he said.
Does this set a precedent? Not according to the mayor’s office. "This is a particularly specific and unique use,” said Shelton. “It’s very unusual thing. I can appreciate the anxiety because it’s such a high-profile thing. But the conclusion was left to the facts."
Representatives from the port disagree. In advance of DPD's final ruling, the Port of Seattle sent a letter detailing ten examples dating back to the 1950s of ice-breakers, fishing vessels and navigation ships that moored for long periods of time at Terminal 5. In fact, there is currently an SSA Maritime navigation ship that has been moored in Terminal 18 — a cargo facility — for five years.
DPD was not as sure that the Foss lease is unique. “We do recognize the port has ice-breakers and research vessels,” said DPD’s Andy Mckim. Nevertheless, Mckim held that this decision was specific to Terminal 5 and would not be used to set a broad precedent for all cargo. "How can we guarantee that?" asked Bowman. DPD Director Diane Sugimura replied, "For now, we have no plans to examine other terminals."
Amid claims of political hardballing, Mckim pled neutrality. “If we were investigating a Greenpeace vessel, we would have come to the same conclusion,” he said.
Shelton confirmed that the mayor's office asked DPD to investigate but denied the ruling is political. "The DPD had to come to the conclusion based on merits," said Shelton.
McKim noted, however, that while DPD fields many land-use complaints, he cannot ever recall investigating the port. “It is unusual for us to come to a conclusion in 30 days. It typically takes up to a year.”
Further, when DPD Director Diane Sugimura was asked to define cargo, the term on which DPD's ruling is predicated, she said, “The city needs to examine its definition," a response which was poorly received by the commissioners, especially Bill Bryant.
The commission’s anti-Shell contingent was not well represented at Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, who has voiced opposition to the lease, could not participate due to health reason. Fellow opponent Commissioner Tom Albro voted in support of appealing the DPD’s decision.
“We need a process to review and examine how the city came to that decision,” he said. The appeal, he argued, was not an attempt to oppose the city, but simply to understand the DPD decision more fully.
Until this issue, the mayor and Seattle industry have maintained a fairly good relationship. Dave Gering, Executive Director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, claimed to have better communication with him than former mayor Mike McGinn.
At this point, the port’s business partners and commissioners all express eagerness to get past the issue somehow. While manufacturing interests uniformly reject the DPD's findings, Gering said this won't be a permanent wedge with the city government. "We'll move beyond this," he said.
That appears to be what everyone wants. "The port needs the support of the city," said Albro.
"If there's one thing we don't want," said Commissioner John Creighton, "it's a prolonged spat between the port and the city."