Off the coast of Seattle on May 14th, Royal Dutch Shell docked the “Polar Pioneer,” an oil rig attempting to make its way up to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. In response, a fleet of 20 kayaks — manned by local environmental activists and the Duwamish Tribe — rowed out to throw it an “unwelcome party,” defying a 500-foot police and Coast Guard mandated “safety zone” around the rig.
“It’s been an exciting time to work with so many diverse groups and to see people move quickly,” Cassady Sharp of the Shell No! coalition told the Seattle Times. “But at the end of day, nobody wants Shell in Seattle or drilling in Alaska.”
The Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5, which is privately owned and operates under a separate governance structure from the city, is currently leased out to the company Foss Maritime. Since last year, Foss has been pushing for Shell and other fossil fuel corporations to be able to use the space, and promised $13.17 million for the 50-acre deal. When the Obama administration (conditionally) approved Arctic drilling earlier this week, Shell took advantage of the decision by pulling into the port. Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, however, has rejected a municipal permit for the company to dock and perform maintenance on the rig, with Mayor Ed Murray saying that Shell could face daily fines for failing to comply with city orders.
In a show of some bravado, Foss spokesman Pat Queary told the press that, “The port asked us nicely to not come while the legal thing was being resolved, which they knew we couldn’t do and are not doing.”
The kayaks are part of a multi-pronged strategy to stop the Polar Pioneer, another aspect of which is a lawsuit currently moving through courts, and has already delayed the rig’s advancement north for the summer, when it is scheduled to begin drilling. Linking up in the water, kayakers unveiled a banner reading “Arctic Drilling = Climate Change.”
Rising hundreds of feet above the water, the rig is — to say the least — an eyesore in Seattle’s Elliot Bay. It is also, of course, an unwelcome piece of fossil fuel infrastructure in a city whose citizens and elected officials have voiced their opposition to Arctic drilling and the expansion of the fossil fuel economy. Coincidentally, Shell’s incursion into Terminal 5 on Thursday also came the same day that, under student pressure, the University of Washington’s Board of Regents decided to divest its $2.8 billion endowment from coal.
Demonstrators are expecting a larger crowd on May 16th for a “flotilla rally” to continue to ramp up pressure on Shell to discontinue its operations in the Arctic, and to call on the federal government to ban the practice outright. What happens in Seattle may prove a bellwether for the future of the fossil fuel industry in the Pacific Northwest. Nineteen liquid natural gas terminals have been proposed along the British Columbian coast. Tesoro Corporation has set its sites on nearby Vancouver, Washington as a terminal for Bakken oil trains traveling in for export from North Dakota. Canada’s Trans-Mountain Pipeline is seeking to triple its capacity and create a massive oil port in Burnaby, British Columbia. Much of this proposed construction would also cross through protected indigenous land and resources.
“The fact is, the protection of our fishery is a constitutional obligation of our federal government,” said Tim Ballew II, chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “We will hold the federal government accountable.”
With the Polar Pioneer’s 400 by 300-foot dimensions, the fight over the oil rig will put the question of fossil fuel extraction, quite literally, front and center in the city of Seattle. Given the sheer mass of the rig, local activists now have the chance to tell — and win — what could be one of the most visceral David versus Goliath stories of the last decade.
Photo credit: Shellno.org website