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En route to Seattle, controversial Arctic drill rig will stop in Port Angeles on Friday

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 13.15.58Article by Chris McDaniel published 14 April2015 by Peninsula Daily News

En route to Seattle, controversial Arctic drill rig will stop in Port Angeles on Friday

PORT ANGELES — The Polar Pioneer — a huge semi-submersible offshore drilling rig that had been hounded of late in the Pacific by Greenpeace activists ­— is expected to arrive in Port Angeles Harbor on Friday.

The 400-foot-tall rig owned by Transocean Ltd., may remain in the harbor for at least two weeks while routine outfitting is conducted before it is towed to Seattle.

As of Tuesday, no protests had been organized by Greenpeace activists in or near Port Angeles, but that doesn’t mean they won’t happen.

“I think that would be fair to say,” said Travis Nichols of Greenpeace, listed as a contact on Arctic issues and based in Atlanta, Ga.

“Honestly I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Protesters have said they plan to meet the Polar Pioneer in kayaks in Seattle Harbor.

Royal Dutch Shell, which leases the huge rig, plans to dock it in Seattle, then haul it north for exploratory oil drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast if the company can obtain the necessary federal permits.

The Polar Pioneer is being transported via the Blue Marlin, a semi-submersible heavy lift ship.

The Blue Marlin, carrying Transocean’s Polar Pioneer, left from Malaysia for Seattle in early March.

The Polar Pioneer “is going to stop at a federal anchorage, much like a lot of other vessels that come through Port Angeles,” said Megan Baldino, Shell Oil Company spokesperson.

“We are going to off-load it. Then we will spend some time preparing it for the planned tow to Seattle.

“We are going to be reinstalling some equipment that we had to remove in order to get the rig over here on the dry tow vessel.”

And “while the Polar Pioneer will be visibly unique, the work we are doing while in Port Angeles is fairly typical after a journey across the ocean and in preparation for the planned tow to Seattle,” she added.

The Port of Port Angeles said in a press release Tuesday:

“The M/V Blue Marlin will be anchoring in Port Angeles Harbor beginning Friday, April 17th, to offload the offshore drilling rig Polar Pioneer.

“The anchorages in Port Angeles harbor are federally designated and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard. After the M/V Blue Marlin departure, the Polar Pioneer will remain here while equipment is installed that had to be removed for transport.

“The work is being done in Port Angeles due to the added margin of safety afforded by the protected harbor and will take place over approximately a two week timeframe.

“The Port of Port Angeles’ involvement in this operation is limited to working with local service and supply vendors that customarily use the Port’s public facilities. The Port will provide moorage for local supply vessels in connection with the operation.”

Target for activists

Conservationists oppose Arctic offshore drilling and say oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a major spill.

In early March, a 35-person Greenpeace crew on a recycled Russian fire-fighting ship, the Esperanza, left Thailand to hunt Shell’s Arctic oil drilling rigs across the ocean, eventually intercepting the Blue Marlin.

On April 6, six Greenpeace activists boarded the Polar Pioneer about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii and remained there for about six days, often holding protest signs saying “The People vs. Shell.”

They were ultimately forced off the vessel by rough seas, according to Greenpeace, rappelling off the rig and into inflatable boats that ferried them back to their ship.

Hours later, Shell won a temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, Alaska that blocked the group from similar protests.

The ruling bars Greenpeace and its activists from boarding, barricading or interfering with the movement of the Polar Pioneer or the Blue Marlin, and remains in effect until at least April 28 when a hearing into the matter is scheduled.

Coast Guard security

While anchored in Port Angeles Harbor, the Polar Pioneer and Blue Marlin will be in a quarantine zone and off-limits to boaters.

Protesters have said that they plan to use kayaks to meet the Polar Pioneer and the Blue Marlin when they arrive in Seattle.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said during a press conference in Seattle that protesters opposed to offshore drilling in the Arctic will have to stay in safety zones well away from the ships.

According to Lt. Dana Warr, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s 13th District — which includes Port Angeles and Seattle — protesters will have to stay 500 yards away from the vessels while they are in motion and 100 yards away when they are at anchor.

“We think 100 yards is an adequate distance away from a large vessel that people can do what they want to do without jeopardizing their safety or affecting commerce” in the port, Warr said.

Personnel stationed nearby at the Port Angeles Coast Guard station on Ediz Hook will provide regular boat patrols if necessary, Warr noted.

“That will depend on known activity or reports that we may get, or communication with an environmentalist that may want to go out there and express their opinions.”

Additionally, the Coast Guard will be in routine communication with the vessels during their stay in the harbor.

Business as usual

There is no charge for parking in the harbor because it is considered to be part of free-access navigational waters.

Ken O’Hollaren, Port of Port Angeles executive director, said the arrival of the vessels will not interrupt the normal flow of traffic within the harbor.

“Not at all. In fact, we are happy to have our facilities utilized for that purpose. We will certainly have a role to play.

“Our facilities will be used by vessels transporting personnel and equipment back and forth from the rig . . . which will be anchored in the harbor.”

The crews will patronize local restaurants and hotels while in town, which is good for the local economy, Baldino said.

“The number of people working with the Polar Pioneer in Port Angeles will vary from day to day,” she said.

“Some days it could be around 10. Other days we could see multiple work crews preparing the rig for its planned tow to Seattle.”

Nichols believes the economic boost isn’t worth it.

“Their safety record is objectively terrible, and so being a part of this process locally doesn’t seem good in general,” he said.

Safety “is our top priority,” Baldino said.

And Shell Oil Company “truly values the local expertise and infrastructure in Port Angeles,” she continued.

‘No drilling’

Arctic offshore drilling is bitterly opposed by conservation groups that claim oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a major spill in ocean water choked with ice.

They also say the oil leases are far from infrastructure such as Coast Guard bases, deep-water ports, major airports and other resources that could be of use in a spill.

The Polar Pioneer is one of two drill rigs Shell hopes to use for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

When Shell last drilled in Arctic Ocean waters in 2012, using two vessels, the company drilled pilot holes and performed other preliminary work in both the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas.

Shell was prohibited from drilling into oil-bearing rock because it did not have required response equipment on hand.

The company experienced problems in the challenging conditions, culminating with the drill vessel Kulluk, which was used in the Beaufort Sea, running aground near Kodiak, Alaska, when it broke loose from its tow vessel.

The company hired by Royal Dutch Shell PLC in 2012 to drill on petroleum leases in the Chukchi — Sugarland, Texas-based Noble Drilling U.S. LLC — in December agreed to pay $12.2 million after pleading guilty to eight felony environmental and maritime crimes on board the Noble Discoverer. That rig is the second one Shell intends to use this year if it obtains the necessary permits.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, [email protected].

Last modified: April 14. 2015 8:04PM

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