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Shell’s Arctic oil setback – unlawful use of Seattle Port

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Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 08.21.50The Port of Seattle is violating its shoreline permit in allowing Shell to set up a ‘home port’ for its Arctic oil drilling fleet, according to Seattle officials. The finding could nix Shell’s oil drilling plans for the 2015 season.

By Oliver Tickell: 5 May 2015

Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean received what may prove a fatal blow yesterday when the City of Seattle issued its finding that the oil company’s use of the Port of Seattle violated planning laws.

Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray announced that an investigation carried out by city’s Department of Planning and Development’s showed that the 20-year old shoreline permit for the Port’s Terminal 5 did not allow its use for as homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet.

The current permit allows the use of the Port only as a “transportation facility” for the transfer and storage of “quantities of goods or container cargo”, and accessory purposes.

According to the City’s senior land use planner, Andrew McKim, neither the drilling equipment nor the rig itself qualified as goods or container cargo. Accordingly “An additional use permit is required for the proposed seasonal moorage”.

Shell is already moving one drilling rig across the Pacific up to Seattle, the Noble Discoverer, while the Polar Pioneer is currently moored at the port of Los Angeles. Two support boats, the cargo ship Harvey Supporter and the icebreaker Aiviq are already at Seattle port.

Shell must now plan for the contingency that its two oil rigs will not be allowed to enter the Port of Seattle – quashing its Arctic drilling plans for another year.

“To prevent the full force of climate change, we need not continue with the past”, said Murray, as he announced the finding.

“It’s time to turn the page. Things like oil trains and coal trains and oil-drilling rigs are the past. It’s time to focus on the economy of the future. Clean energy, electric cars and transit, green homes and an environmentally progressive business community.”

Legal challenge under way

The City’s finding came in response to a lawsuit filed against the Port of Seattle on 2nd March by the environmental law group Earthjustice, which challenged the Port’s decision to open Terminal 5 to Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet without public proceedings or environmental review.

The lawsuit charges that the Port, in granting the $13 million lease to Shell’s contractor, Foss Maritime,

  • changed the use of Terminal 5 by converting it into a homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, which will need extensive maintenance and repairs after being battered in the Arctic conditions;
  • allowed Shell’s drill ships to be housed at the Port, including the Noble Discoverer which was the subject of 8 felony convictions and over $12 million in fines and community service last December, including for discharging oil-contaminated water in violation of water pollution laws;
  • violated the Port’s long-range plans and its shoreline permit, which designate Terminal 5 as a cargo terminal, not a homeport;
  • needed to conduct a public review of the environmental and community impacts of making this change. 

Earthjustice filed the challenge on behalf of a coalition of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, The Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, and Seattle Audubon Society.

The coalition asked the King County Superior Court to vacate the lease because the Port violated the State Environmental Policy Act, its own rules, and the Shoreline Management Act. The City’s decision that the Port is violating its permit now sets the stage for a legal victory.

‘Port must now reject Shell’s use of Seattle waters’

Patti Goldman, Earthjustice’s managing attorney, welcomed Mayor Murray’s announcement: “We applaud the Mayor’s office and the City of Seattle for prioritizing this investigation and reaching a conclusion consistent with the law and the public’s interest in full participation.

 “We urge the Port of Seattle’s commissioners to take the Mayor’s invitation to use this opportunity to reevaluate the Port’s priorities and to reject Shell’s use of Seattle’s waters as a homeport for its harmful Arctic drilling operations.”

Shell’s disastrous 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling and transport operations demonstrate that even technically advanced and well-resourced companies are no match for Arctic conditions. The company was investigated and fined after multiple missteps and close calls during its efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean that year.

In December 2014, one Shell contractor, Noble Drilling (US) LLC, pled guilty to eight felony charges and paid over $12 million in fines and community service. Noble operates the Noble Discoverer, one of the two drill ships in Shell’s Arctic fleet.

The other drill ship, the Polar Pioneer, is operated by Transocean, which paid more than $1.4 billion in criminal and civil fines for its role in the 2010 Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both drill ships could come to the Port of Seattle under the terms of the lease with Foss Maritime Company.

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What’s next for the Shell drilling rig?

Ted Land, KING 5 News 7:44 p.m. PDT May 5, 2015

Shell’s controversial drilling rigs have already arrived in the Northwest but now it’s up to the Port of Seattle to decide if that giant rig can make the trip south to Elliott Bay.

Mayor Ed Murray threw a serious barrier in front of the waterfront on Monday when he announced the port doesn’t have the right permit to allow Shell’s vessels to dock at Terminal 5.

Do they cancel a lease with the company Shell hired to take care of its vessels and risk costly legal penalties? Or do they let the oil company come here anyways despite the mayor’s protests, a potentially illegal move?

The port commission met Tuesday to talk about their quandary but that meeting took place in executive session, behind closed doors, and they made no comments afterwards.

When the Port of Seattle commissioners originally voted to allow shell to dock its drill ships in Seattle, it was a close vote – three in favor of doing business with the oil company, two opposed.

All it would take is one yes vote changing their mind and the commission could cancel its deal with Shell.

Those discussions are taking place behind closed doors, in executive session.

Meanwhile at City Hall, voices on both sides of the issue spoke out on the mayor’s announcement that a city permit does not allow maintenance of oil services equipment at the port.

Some in the business community worry about the message Seattle is sending to the world, when it tells a company it’s not welcome here.

But will all this talk actually keep Shell away? We don’t know… yet.

The port commission will meet again next Tuesday, this time it will be a public meeting.

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