Shell rigs prepare to dock in Seattle amidst Arctic oil uproar

Port of Seattle. Creative Commons: Don Wilson, 2004

Port of Seattle. Creative Commons: Don Wilson, 2004

Royal Dutch Shell is moving forward with plans to dock two of its Arctic drilling rigs in the port of Seattle despite orders from port commissioners urging the company to wait.

The Port of Seattle’s board voted Tuesday to ask Shell to delay the arrival of its drilling rigs in the face of public outcry from residents of one of America’s greenest cities.

Backed by a controversial decision by the Obama administration to open waters off the coast of Alaska to oil drilling, Shell plans to use the Puget Sound as a home port as it conducts exploratory oil drilling. The announcement from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Monday unleashed waves of criticism from environmentalists, who accused the administration of putting “big oil before people” and said that the plan would expose the fragile region to a catastrophic spill.

Opposition to Shell’s Arctic ambitions has reached a fever pitch in Washington State, where activists in Seattle and elsewhere are trying to foil the company’s plans while raising awareness of the potentially catastrophic impacts of Arctic drilling on the global climate.

Protesters in kayaks and onshore gathered earlier this week in Port Angeles, Washington as the 400-foot tall Polar Pioneer—one of Shell’s two Arctic-bound drilling rigs—arrived on its final stop before embarking for Seattle.

The Coast Guard ordered activists on the water to stay 500 yards away from the Polar Pioneer when it was moving and to keep clear of its anchored location by at least 100 yards.

On Tuesday, another group of kayak protesters met a second Shell rig, the Noble Discoverer, as it stopped in Everett, Washington on its way to Seattle.

While Shell’s rigs bear down on the city, confusion about the legality of docking them at the Port of Seattle remains murky.

Last week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said that Shell’s plans to moor at the port’s Terminal 5 is not in compliance with a permit that designates it a “cargo terminal.”

Mayor Murray has instructed the port to reapply for a new permit, a process that could take months and disrupt Shell’s plans to reach the Arctic in the region’s short summer drilling window.

A Shell spokesman maintained that the permit is valid, and said that the company does not intend to modify its plans to use leased space at Terminal 5. Shell also looks likely to ignore the resolution passed by port officials on Tuesday.

Jason Kelly, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, fired back at the company.

“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,” Kelly said in an email to the Associated Press.

Shell’s decision to dock in the Port of Seattle against the wishes of the city’s mayor and port authorities is likely to touch off a new wave of protests this coming weekend.

Critics of Shell say that the company’s efforts to drill in the Arctic’s icy, dangerous waters will result in a serious oil spill. A recent study released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management affirms this, saying there is a three in four chance that a major oil spill will occur if oil and gas development takes place in the Arctic.

Scientists say that Arctic drilling could also be game over for the climate. According to research published in the leading scientific journal Nature, the world cannot burn any of the Arctic’s vast oil and gas reserves if global warming is to be contained to the internationally agreed level of 2 degrees Celsius.

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