Port: Enviros playing politics with suit against Shell Arctic fleet homeport

By Joel Connelly, March 11, 2015, Seattle PI

Environmentalists are using a court suit to pursue political goals and have no legal standing to block a lease that will base Shell’s Arctic oil drilling fleet at Terminal 5 on the Seattle waterfront, according to legal filings Wednesday by the Port of Seattle and Foss Maritime.


“The subject matter of this motion is the subject of intense political campaigning by the Plaintiffs, but such politics have no place in this courtroom,” the Port said in a legal filing with King County Superior Court.


As the firm servicing Shell’s fleet, which will drill for oil in waters of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, Foss noted that its roots in Seattle go back 125 years.


“Foss entered into the Lease Agreement with the Port of Seattle intending to use Terminal 5 in a fashion that would comply with all applicable laws and regulations pertaining to the property,” said Foss’ brief.


Shell is planning to go back to Arctic waters this summer.  The company has already invested an estimated $5.8 billion in leases and equipment.  An initial 2012 drilling effort turned into a fiasco, culminating when Shell’s conical drilling ship Kulluk ran aground while being towed back to Puget Sound waters.  The ship was later taken apart in China.


Opponents don’t want the oil giant here and don’t want any oil drilling in Arctic waters.  They fear an accident in remote, ice-choked waters where gray whales feed and polar bears hunt seals.  They also claim expansion of Big Oil’s drilling in Alaska fuels climate change.


The suit was filed last week by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Washington Environmental Council and the Seattle Audubon Society.


The groups allege that basing of Shell’s oil drilling fleet will fundamentally change uses of Terminal 5, and that the Port erred in deciding the lease was exempt from review under the state’s Environmental Policy Act.


Initial legal skirmishing is slated Friday before King County Superior Court Judge Mariane Spearman, chief civil judge of the court.


The environmental groups have cited the Shoreline Management Act to challenge the Shell-Foss lease.  In response, the Port said Wednesday that there is “no private action to enforce” the shoreline law.


“Enforcement, if needed, will be handled by the City of Seattle or Department of Ecology,” the Port argued.  It argued later that state law “does not delegate ANY enforcement authority to citizen groups or individuals.”


On Monday, Mayor Ed Murray told the city’s planning department to “review and investigate” whether hosting of the Shell drilling fleet is allowed under the Port’s current Shoreline Substantial Development Permit at Terminal 5.


The mayor’s actions, running parallel to the lawsuit, could throw a major monkey wrench into plans to base Shell’s drilling fleet.  New and different permits could require extensive environmental review.


The Port of Seattle, in its court filing, said that environmental groups have not alleged any damages, or made the case that they own property that could be damaged by violations of the Shorelines Management Act.


“Plaintiffs have failed to plead any such facts, instead basing their motion on assertions about future events that have not happened …” the Port argued.


About 200 opponents of the Shell homeport showed up Tuesday at a Seattle Port Commission meeting.  They spoke passionately, submitted letters and even broke into song.


The Port has shown no signs of backing off.  The Shell-Foss lease means $28 million in income at a time when Terminal 5 is being retrofitted to handle larger container cargoes.


The commission has made the slightest of bows to its critics.  It is due to take up a motion that tells Shell to be gone in two years, and promises a much longer window for public comment and environmental assessment of future lease deals.


Foss is a longstanding presence on the Seattle waterfront, its closeness to the Port underscored by its filings with the court.


“Foss has leased many facilities from the Port of Seattle and from other public entities, and Foss has abided by its agreements, as it will here,” said the company.  “The Lease Agreement requires compliance with all applicable laws.  Foss believes, and intends, that it will do so.”

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