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Shell: Port lease is valid, so drill rigs coming to Seattle despite pleas for delay, protests

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By GENE JOHNSON and PHUONG LE, Associated Press: 13 May 2015

SEATTLE (AP) — Royal Dutch Shell is forging ahead with plans to park two Arctic oil drilling rigs in Seattle, risking possible fines from the city and ignoring port commissioners who have asked Shell to wait.

Shell’s plan to move the two rigs to Seattle in coming days sets up a showdown between environmentalists and oil exploration advocates and touches off a wider debate about climate change and whether the nation should tap oil and gas reserves in the icy, remote Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s coast.

A Shell spokesman said Tuesday it has a valid lease to use about 50 acres of terminal space on Seattle’s waterfront and a tight timeline to prepare its fleet for exploratory oil drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska, so it is sticking to plans to park its drilling fleet on Seattle’s waterfront.

“Should Shell bring the rigs to Terminal 5 before the appropriate permits are in place, Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development will evaluate the situation and could issue a notice of violation,” said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in an email Wednesday.

There are monetary penalties associated with operating without the necessary permits, he added.

Murray last week said the Port of Seattle, a public agency, needs a new permit before it can moor in Seattle. And Port of Seattle commissioners Tuesday night passed a resolution ask Shell’s host, Foss Maritime, to tell Shell to delay coming here. The resolution says they want the delay to allow for further legal review of the city’s interpretation of a new permit.

At the same time, port commissioners voted unanimously to appeal that city interpretation, which Foss Maritime has already done. The city has said the terminal can’t be used as a base for drill rigs because the port’s land-use permit is for cargo operations.

Shell cleared a major hurdle Monday when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved its plan, though Shell still must get other permits.

About a dozen protesters in kayaks met one of two drill rigs Shell plans to use, the 514-foot-long Noble Discoverer, as it arrived Tuesday evening in Everett on its way south to Seattle. The second, the 400-foot-long Polar Pioneer, has been parked at an Olympic Peninsula port but is expected to arrive in Seattle later this week to larger protests.

“I now hope Shell will respect the wishes of the Port, the city and the community at large, and not bring an offshore drilling rig into Elliott Bay,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Tuesday in a statement.

A Shell spokesman said the company understands the request for more time but its plans have not changed.

“Given the short windows in which we have to work in the Arctic, and our shared view that Shell’s lease and the supporting contract with Foss is valid, we have made the decision to utilize Terminal 5 under the terms originally agreed upon by the parties involved — including the Port of Seattle,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email Tuesday. “Rig movement will commence in the days to come.”

Foss also was adamant. Company President Paul Stevens said the port commission knew what activities would be occurring at the terminal when it granted the lease.

“We’re going to proceed,” he said.

Activists who don’t want Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic turned out at the nearly five-hour commission meeting.

“Drilling for oil in the precious Arctic is not on the right side of history,” said Richard Hodgin, a drilling opponent from Seattle.

The meeting drew a range of voices, including several people who traveled from Alaska. Representatives of Alaska Native corporations argued that the environmentalists opposing the drilling don’t understand the economic needs of Alaska’s Natives.

John Hopson, mayor of Wainwright, Alaska, a community of Inupiat whalers, said he traveled two days to speak for his allotted two minutes.

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