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Coast Guard creates ‘First Amendment zone’ in Puget Sound for anti-Shell protests

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 09.05.35Article by Joel Connelly published 14 April 2015 by

Coast Guard creates ‘First Amendment zone’ in Puget Sound for anti-Shell protests

The U.S. Coast Guard, with help from activist groups, has identified an informal  “First Amendment Zone,” just north of Terminal 5, where protesters can take to the water against Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet when it arrives at the Port of Seattle.

“I didn’t choose this area:  I gave them a chart and asked them where they wanted to be,” Capt. Joe Raymond, captain of the port, said Tuesday.

Raymond initiated a meeting on Monday with organizers of a “sea of kayaks” protest. He described the zone as “an excellent place” for protesters wishing a high-visibility presence while not interfering with ferries, tugs and other marine traffic in the harbor.

Still, a key player in the anti-Shell protests — Greenpeace — says no accord was reached at the meeting on where sea-borne protests can take place.

“We did not walk away with an agreement on where people can be or how they will conduct themselves,” said John Deans, Arctic campaign specialist with Greenpeace.

“For us, the questions will be: What do people want to do?  Where do people want to be?  This is a movement that we are talking about.”

If its drilling plan passes final muster with two U.S. Interior Department agencies, Shell intends to operate two drilling rigs and drill two exploratory wells this summer in Alaska’s remote Chukchi Sea.

The Polar Pioneer — occupied at sea last week by six Greenpeace activists — is due soon in Washington waters, but will stop in Port Angeles, as first reported Monday by The Stranger.

A second ship, the Noble Discoverer, is “a ways off, to the west of Hawaii,” and not due here until mid-May, said Capt. Raymond.

The Noble Discoverer will be a magnet for protest.  It figured prominently in Shell’s gremlin-plagued 2012 bid to drill in the Arctic.  The ship slipped its anchor and nearly ran aground on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians.

A U.S. Coast Guard inspection of the ship, later in the year, resulted in eight felony convictions and $12.2 million in fines against Shell’s subcontractor.

The “Firstt Amendment Zone” is not a legal entity, but an area close to Terminal 5 that is not part of regular marine traffic through the harbor.

There will also be designated “safety zones” around Shell’s drilling fleet, 500 yards when vessels are underway and 100 yards when they are tied up at the pier.  “I do have a safety zone around vessels in Port Angeles,” said Capt. Raymond.

Capt. Raymond met with a cross-section of environmentalists on Monday.  They included mainstream groups like Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council, along with the lightly regarded 350.Seattle.  Greenpeace, the Puget Sound Alliance and Mosquito Fleet were also in the group.

Greenpeace has had a ship, the Esperanza, shadowing the “Polar Pioneer” and Shell’s drilling fleet since it left Malaysia in mid-March.  On Monday, April 6t  six protesters boarded the ship carrying Polar Pioneer.  They decamped the following Saturday and are back on the Esperanza.

Shell said that the boarding on the high seas was illegal as well as dangerous to both the ship’s crew and the Greenpeace protesters.

The oil giant is seeking a sweeping injunction that would bar Greenpeace from interfering with its Arctic drilling fleet when it is en route to Alaskan waters, when in port, and when drilling in the Chukchi Sea.  The Shell drilling site is about 75 miles northwest of the Alaskan village of Wainwright.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason has set an April 28 hearing in Anchorage on Shell’s effort to keep Greenpeace at arm’s length.

Stakes are high for both sides.

Shell has invested almost $6 billion in its Arctic exploration, counting what it paid for oil leases — issued in 2008 by the Bush administration — and the refitting of ships.  The company is scaling back on exploration elsewhere in the world, but doubling down on Alaska this summer.

Greenpeace is going back to where it all began.  The activist environmental group has its origins a 1970 boat trip into waters around Amchitka Island in the Aleutians, where the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was conducting an underground atomic weapons test.

The Monday meeting with the Coast Guard was “a great learning moment” for all involved, said Dean.

But Greenpeace is not to be deterred from trying to stop Shell.

“My concern is the Coast Guard is setting a zone for these ‘Arctic destroyer rigs’ that is inhibiting peoples’ ability to protest,” Deans said.  “In this way it is protecting Shell’s interest in trying to prevent free speech.”

Shell has argued that it has listened to appreciated groups that oppose its drilling — and have mounted prolonged litigation to stop it — but that it will not countenance illegal and dangerous direct action.

Greenpeace is sponsoring a major “Shell No” protest, at 2 p.m.  April 26 at Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront.

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