Kayaktivists Vs. A Massive Oil Rig: Inside Seattle’s Fight Against Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans


On Saturday, they came by sea: hundreds of “kayaktivists” gathering around a newly-arrived, massive offshore oil drilling rig in Seattle’s Elliot Bay.

On Monday, they came by land, with an estimated 700 people blocking the road to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 for about six hours.

Their goal? Disrupt access as the rig attempted to prepare for departure to Alaska in Shell’s bid to start drilling for oil in the Arctic. Do it long enough to cause a delay that shortens the already-short drilling window during the Arctic summer.

The effort was organized by ShellNo, “a coalition of activists, artists, and noisemakers battling Shell in Seattle.” A broad array of local groups, as well as some who came down from Alaska, have turned what would have been a simple drilling rig transfer into a rallying cry for climate change and the Arctic.

“To be honest, this has been something of a surprise to me,” said Emily Johnston of 350 Seattle, one of the coalition’s partner organizations. “I’ve never seen anything like this. When the Kulluk [a Shell Arctic drilling rig] was here in 2012 there was nothing like this here.”

“Part of our goal is to delay them as long as possible because the drilling window is quite small,” Johnston said.

Protesters lift up a circular tarp painted in earth colors during a rally at Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle, Monday, May 18, 2015, in Seattle where the Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig and other equipment to be used by Royal Dutch Shell for Arctic oil drilling is currently stationed.

Protesters lift up a circular tarp painted in earth colors during a rally at Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle, Monday, May 18, 2015, in Seattle where the Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig and other equipment to be used by Royal Dutch Shell for Arctic oil drilling is currently stationed.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Shell has spent well over $5 billion in its effort to try to explore for oil in the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean, attempting to make progress for several years and thus far failing miserably.

In 2012, the oil giant hit delay after delay: its oil spill recovery barge failed to meet code, one rig went out of control in Dutch Harbor after slipping anchor, they postponed exploratory drilling until 2013 after just drilling two preparatory wells, and another rig (the aforementioned Kulluk) was nearly lost after it ran aground in harsh weather while heading south for the winter.

In both 2013 and 2014 they cancelled the Arctic drilling season before it even started.

Shell’s proposal to drill in the frozen — but rapidly warming — Arctic gained new life last week after the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell’s plan to drill up to six exploratory wells 70 miles off Alaska’s coast. Abigail Ross Hopper the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), said the agency took a “thoughtful approach” to considering Arctic exploration. Shell still would need seven more permits to get final approval to drill in earnest.

“Scientists have told us over and over that drilling in the Arctic means cooking our planet even faster, and plunging deeper into climate chaos,” said Karthik Ganapathy,’s U.S. communications manager. “While President Obama might have missed that memo, our movement hasn’t, which is why so many people are standing up and putting their bodies on the line to say Shell No to Arctic drilling.”

Three things changed between this year and Shell’s last attempt in 2012 that made Seattle a new climate battleground.

First, Shell sends its Arctic-bound drilling rigs through the Port of Seattle, and locals have realized that their city has become a climate choke point as companies look for ways to exploit the offshore oil resources in the Arctic.

Second, instead of mooring their rig at a private dock like in 2012, Shell and local contractor Foss Maritime are using the Port of Seattle, a public entity. This enabled the public pressure that helped the Port Commission to vote to delay the arrival of the rigs last week “pending further legal review.” The City of Seattle this week declared that the rig did not have a proper permit, issuing a violation notice that could result in minor daily fines.

The third factor that led to the massive resistance facing Shell this year was the evidence in research published in Nature this year, in order to keep global temperature increases below 2°C, all fossil fuels in the Arctic need to stay in the ground.

So now Shell has found it cannot quietly send its Arctic drilling rigs through Seattle.

Justin Finkbonner, the Lummi Youth Canoe Family skipper, stands in his canoe in front of the Arctic-bound Polar Pioneer.

Justin Finkbonner, the Lummi Youth Canoe Family skipper, stands in his canoe in front of the Arctic-bound Polar Pioneer.

CREDIT: Emily Johnston

Saturday’s kayak-based protest brought hundreds of people on kayaks outside a hundred-yard exclusion zone around the massive Polar Pioneer rig. No one was arrested, as the Coast Guard worked with the kayakers, who sometimes drifted closer to the rig, to keep everyone safe.

“I thought it went pretty beautifully,” said Bill Moyer, co-founder of the Backbone Campaign, one of ShellNo’s partner organizations. “It succeeded in its main objective: to safely and beautifully put hundreds of people on the water that garnered attention across the world.”

Carl Wassilie, a Yupiaq biologist and former fisherman has been fighting oil extraction in the Arctic since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and traveled down to Seattle to describe the horrible consequences of the spill on locals.

The protest’s venue posed myriad hazards. The water around the rig is so polluted that it is actually a Superfund site, and a Grist reporter who piloted a kayak that day said it felt oily to the touch.

“It was so great to see such a contrast between the colorful, beautiful collection of hundreds of canoes, human sized, human powered,” Johnston said, “against the hulking monster in the background.”

Alaska Rising Tide activists pose in front of the Polar Pioneer drilling rig.

CREDIT: Emily Johnston

On Monday, about 700 people met at Harbor Island and proceeded down the truck road toward Terminal 5, which is where the massive rig is moored, according to 350 Seattle’s Johnston. From there they set up blockades at the ends of the road in a “nonviolent direct action,” preventing people from getting into the entrance for around six hours.

No one was hurt or arrested and the demonstration remained peaceful, under the watch of about a dozen police on foot and bicycle. A Shell spokesperson said that the demonstration did not affect the work underway to prepare for the rig’s journey north.

Jeff Raley, an oil industry worker who had recently lost his job came to see the rig when it arrived on Thursday to show support for oil industry jobs, according to the Seattle Times. “If these (activists) choose to put me and guys like me out of work for an idea, what are they trying to do?”

March to Terminal 5.

March to Terminal 5.

CREDIT: Emily Johnston

One of the only reasons Shell can seriously entertain the prospect of exploratory offshore drilling in the Arctic is because there is less and less ice to block its activities each year. In February, winter sea ice reached its smallest extent in the satellite record era.

The U.S. recently took over as chair of the Arctic Council, an international body charged with addressing important Arctic issues. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the council in April, identified climate change as the first thing on which the U.S. would focus. While he spotlighted renewable energy as the solution, he did not mention fossil fuels or energy extraction at all. Kerry also said that while the increased human traffic brought by melting Arctic ice threatened maritime ecosystems, there were also benefits to that traffic.

Yet as Mia Bennett pointed out on the Arctic news blog Cryopolitics, “the first major choice that the U.S. has made as Arctic Council chair has been to conditionally approve Shell’s exploratory drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska this summer.”

This week’s oil pipeline spill into the waters off Santa Barbara had the benefit of a fairly quick spill response enabled by industry and government infrastructure near by. Should something go wrong for Shell while drilling or transporting oil in the harsh, icy, cold, and remote Arctic Ocean, the nearest Coast Guard facility is over a thousand miles away.

With the protests over, what is next for the rigs?

Johnston said that organizers believe that Shell is trying to get underway by the end of May or the beginning of June.

On Tuesday, Shell’s CEO assured investors that the rig was in the Port legally.

“The contract that we have with Foss, the maritime contractor that we have there, the lease that they have in terminal 5 we think they are legally valid and indeed have tested it and are ready to move ahead with putting the Polar Pioneer (rig) there, loading it out so it is ready for its journey to Alaska,” Ben van Beurden said.

“We have not seen, apart from the protests, any legal obstacles for us to do that.”

Moyer said he understood that the rig workers were working 12-hour shifts for the next week. “My guess is that they’ll be leaving soon.”

The Port of Seattle will be holding town halls and hearings over the next several weeks, potentially visible public events. The second rig Shell plans to bring to the Arctic, the Noble Discoverer, arrived in Puget Sound earlier this month and is expected to arrive at Terminal 5 in the near future, possibly attracting similar protests seeking delays. CREDO Action launched a petition asking people to “tell President Obama not to drill the Arctic.”

“Business as usual is not on the table,” Johnston said, when asked what Shell and Foss Maritime could expect in the next few weeks.