‘How Did This Happen’: Shell Using Seattle Ports For Arctic Drilling Rigs

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Seattle, Elliott Bay and the Port from above West Seattle.

The specter of Shell using the Port of Seattle to dock its Arctic drilling rigs is causing major upheaval in the Emerald City.

For the last two months, outrage over the Port of Seattle’s clandestine leasing of a terminal to Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic oil drilling fleet has been slowly gaining steam. What began as a quiet deal between the port and Foss Maritime Co., which would work for Shell under the two-year lease, has burgeoned into an expansive debate over the image of one of the country’s greenest cities, the extraction of some of the most remote fossil fuels, and the global effort to confront climate change.

“How did this happen without anyone paying attention to it?” Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw told ThinkProgress. “Shell is one of the few oil companies that’s still contemplating Arctic drilling; it’s just inconsistent with what we believe is this city’s direction.”

On Monday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murry and Seattle City Council announced that the city would “review, investigate and determine” whether the Port of Seattle’s plans for Terminal 5 are permitted under current regulations.

Bagshaw said that she and the other council members are concerned about both what’s happening up in the Arctic, “in particular with a certain company that has a bad safety record,” as well as the fact that the project has not yet received sufficient public input.

“We don’t want to promote the idea of Arctic drilling. It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” she said.

Bagshaw also said the spot where the drilling rigs would be mooring is right at the base of West Seattle, a very dense residential area, and that nearby residents were worried about the prospect of the rigs.

Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman says there are three dimensions to the situation.

“At the port level, the public sees this as a return to crony capitalism. There’s a sense that the port, run by elected officials, is just acting like a business,” said Goldman when asked why the issue has stirred such passion within the community. “There’s also a lot of interconnection between Seattle and Alaska, and people here have a certain allegiance to that area. Then on climate change, Seattle was one of the first cities to take action at the city level.”

Earthjustice is one of several groups to file a lawsuit in the Washington state court alleging that the drilling operation does not comply with the terminal’s intended use as a container terminal, not a home port. The suit, which gets its first hearing on Friday, asserts that the port did not comply with public processes, zoning regulations, and environmental regimes and that a new environmental review is required for Shell to use the terminal.

During a three-hour Port of Seattle public hearing on Tuesday, residents had the chance to register their concerns. Community members expressed outrage over everything from the port’s lack of transparency to Shell’s blatant disregard for the impacts of climate change.

Marilyn Cornwell, a local pastor, appealed to the port’s five commissioners to rescind the lease because it “threatens sustainability and prosperity for all.” She urged them to create a new public process that is creative and collaborative in an effort to find tenants.

“What does it profit us if we do things that make money at the expense of our lives and the lives of others?” She said.

Bagshaw said that the city is trying to prevent this from becoming an environment-versus labor argument.

“We all want people here in Seattle to have good jobs and live productive lives,” said Bagshaw. “We’ve been working for a long time on a business plan that promotes prosperity and sustainability going forward in our region.”

Mike O’Brien, another Councilmember, expressed concerns that the drilling fleet could “discharge oil and other toxic pollutants” in the Puget Sound, thus damaging a fragile ecosystem that the area has worked for decades to clean up.

Shell has been using Dutch Harbor, Alaska for its drilling fleet in recent years, and could return there again. Goldman said Shell prefers not to do this because it costs more, the weather is rough, and the company would have to fly-in trained staff. It also wants to avoid paying the fossil fuel tax in Alaska.

One of the two vessels Shell wants to dock in Seattle is contracted by Noble Corp., a company that recently paid $12.2 million to settle a U.S. Justice Department investigation after two drilling rigs broke free in Arctic waters in 2012. Working as a contractor for Shell at the time, Noble had allegedly violated marine and environmental laws, leading to both safety dangers and pollution discharge. The other vessel is being operated by Transocean, which paid $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and blew five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell has been angling to drill in the Arctic for years, and it’s been set back on every occasion. With another summer season approaching, the company is eager to restart these efforts after suspending them in 2013. In January, Royal Dutch Shell Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry told investors the company is planning to drill in Alaska this year. Even as oil prices plummet, the multinational fossil fuel behemoth is intent on spending upwards of $1 billion to “see how much oil is there.” Shell’s main target is the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles off the Alaska’s northwest coast.

“Developing offshore oil in the Arctic just doesn’t make much sense,” Shiva Polefka, a policy analyst for American Progress’s Ocean Policy program, told ThinkProgress. “The Coast Guard admits it doesn’t have the equipment or expertise it would need to clean up an oil spill in sea ice, and yet the Interior Department says there is a three in four chance that drilling in the Chukchi Sea will result in a major oil spill.”

Opponents of Arctic drilling are also quick to point out a recent Nature study that assessed the geographical location of fossil fuels that must remain unused, or buried, to prevent dangerous climate change. The study found that development of resources in the Arctic is “incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C.”

“If I had to pick a logo that says, ‘I’m for climate chaos,’ I could hardly do better than an Arctic drilling rig,” KC Golden, Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based organizatin, told ThinkProgress. “This is a very powerful story about crazy logic and unbridled greed and hubris.”