Shell departs as protesting council member detained

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Shell Oil's Polar Pioneer Arctic drilling rig before it left Seattle

Law enforcement officers detained 24 activists — including Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien — early Monday morning as they tried to block the massive Shell Oil drilling rig from leaving Seattle.

“I don’t think any of us thought we could stop it. The question was: Could we delay it?” O’Brien said.

The Greenpeace-led activists slowed the Polar Explorer trip to the Alaskan portion of the Chukchi Sea — which is between the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean — by one or two hours.

The U.S. Coast Guard issued 24 notices of violation of the 500-yard safety zone around a major moving vessel, and the potential fines are up to $500 each, said Coast Guard Lt. Dana Warr.

O’Brien said he would consult with a lawyer before deciding whether to contest or pay the fine. However, he pointed to a Shell contractor, Noble Corp., agreeing to a $12.2 million federal fine last December for eight criminal violations in 2012 related to drilling in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, which hugs Alaska’s and the Yukon Territory’s north coast.

One of the eight violations came from the Shell-owned, Noble-operated drilling unit Kulluk, which operated in the Beaufort Sea before being hauled to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, On New Year’s Eve 2012, the Kulluk grounded near Kodiak Island while en route from Dutch Harbor to Everett, the Alaska Dispatch News Web site reported. The Polar Explorer rig that left Seattle on Monday has been the Kulluk’s replacement.

O’Brien was in a single-person kayak, one among more than 50 kayaks and small boats that strung out in a ragged line north of the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 to block the Polar Explorer. The Shell ship was using four tug boats and was escorted by several small Coast Guards, Seattle police and King County Sheriff’s Office boats. As the rig maneuvered to flank the kayaks, the kayaks and tiny boats tried to block those moves.

“It was kind of horrifying,” O’Brien said of seeing the huge rig approaching the kayaks.

Coast Guard and police vessels ordered the activists’ kayaks and small boats out of the way, sometimes snagging them by the bows to haul far off to the side or to remove them from the water, said O’Brien and Greenpeace activist Dan Clumpner of Olympia. Alki Point was the nearest landmark to the Coast Guard’s intervention with the kayaks.

O’Brien said the Coast Guard, police and activists were respectful and careful around each other. No incidents occurred as the Coast Guard picked up 24 people, ferried them to Pier 36 and gave them the violation  notices, said Warr, O’Brien and Clumpner.

So did the short-lived blockade accomplish anything?

“We sent a very clear message from the elected officials and the activists and the public that they are not welcomed in our port,” O’Brien said. “The story of social movements in this country is the history of this country,” Clumpner said.

The Seattle City Council believes the Port of Seattle needs to get a permit before Shell can return its oil rigs and vessels to the Seattle docks. The Washington Department of Natural Resources contends the Polar Pioneer rig is too big for the Port of Seattle’s facilities, and King County has denied a wastewater permit for Shell’s oil rig operations.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8