Seattle Wades Into Fight Over Oil Drilling

City Council members join activists in latest example of local action against Big Oil

Jim Carlton, June 15, 2015, Wall Street Journal

Law enforcement detained dozens of protesters Monday for trying to block a Royal Dutch Shell PLC oil rig from departing the Port of Seattle for drilling off Alaska—the latest development in a weekslong standoff in which environmental activists have been joined by an unusual ally: the city itself.

Monday’s action took place after the Polar Pioneer and its support vessels attempted to leave the port about 6 a.m. to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea and were intercepted by protesters in kayaks, Coast Guard officials said.


About two dozen people were detained, including Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien, as more activists prepared to try to block the 400-by-292-foot drilling vessel from reaching the open sea, said Coast Guard Lt. Dana Warr. Lt. Warr said the agency is enforcing a 500-yard safety zone around the vessel, and that violators face misdemeanor citations.


Shell officials said that while they respect the rights of drilling opponents to express their view, “we only ask that they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law.”


Mr. O’Brien, who wasn’t immediately available for comment, participated with at least one other city Council Member in an earlier floating demonstration against the rig when it docked in Seattle early last month under a controversial permit. Mayor Ed Murray and the council launched a challenge to the permit that allowed Shell’s equipment to be stored and serviced at the port before the planned drilling. The Democratic mayor is concerned the drilling will add to global warming.


“The expansion of what I think is an antiquated [energy] policy is bad,” said Mr. Murray in an interview. “I used the only leverage I had.”


The opposition from the mayor and a united City Council has drawn criticism from port officials and others who say rejection of Shell’s plans could cost the city jobs and harm its reputation with businesses.


Seattle is the latest jurisdiction in the U.S. to try to use its clout against Big Oil. Several have banned fracking, including Denton, Texas, and Mora County, N.M. In California, San Jose, Oxnard and Moorpark are among cities that have sent letters or passed resolutions against a proposed oil-train terminal in San Luis Obispo County, citing safety concerns among other factors.

Worries over oil safety were rekindled when as much as 100,000 gallons of crude spilled from a ruptured pipeline off the Santa Barbara County, Calif., coast on May 19.


In Washington state, the city of Vancouver, also pointing to environmental and safety concerns, passed a resolution last June opposing a planned oil-rail facility, putting it at odds with the Port of Vancouver, which backed it.


“The City of Vancouver does not believe that there are sufficient answers to the important questions regarding environment and physical safety to proceed with any type of development at this time,” the City Council said in its resolution.


Not every city in the region has taken sides on the issue. In nearby Everett, Wash., officials in the port city of 100,000 opted not to weigh in when another of Shell’s Arctic rigs docked there last month, said city spokesman Eric Hicks. Shell officials said that equipment, too, would be departing soon for Alaska.


Officials at the Port of Everett last month affirmed the port’s support for offshore exploration in Alaska, saying it can provide hundreds of jobs and generate millions in local sales and tax revenue.


And drilling has been embraced by many communities elsewhere—particularly in oil-producing states like Texas, where the legislature recently passed a law prohibiting local bans on fracking.


Industry officials say jurisdictions should be encouraging oil and gas growth for the economic benefits. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create millions of new jobs, generate trillions of dollars for the government, and strengthen our national security,” said Sabrina Fang, spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington.


Some of the local actions against oil amount to symbolic protests that in themselves don’t have meaningful impact. But they are triggering legal fights, and in some cases spurring legislation. Mora County’s 2013 fracking ban, for example, was struck down by a U.S. district-court judge this year as unconstitutional.


Seattle joined the fray after Shell early this year renewed its plans for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska. The oil giant had attempted the drilling in 2012, but failed amid bad weather and mechanical failures. In February, the Port of Seattle signed an agreement with Foss Maritime Co., leaseholder of a terminal there, to host Shell’s Arctic exploration fleet for two years.


But Seattle officials objected to Shell’s use of port facilities, saying the drilling would undermine a climate action plan the city adopted two years ago aimed at making Seattle carbon-neutral by 2025. Last month, the council unanimously passed a resolution urging the port to reconsider its lease with Shell.


While the drilling would take place some 2,000 miles away, the mayor and other opponents say it will add to global warming by leading to the burning of more fossil fuels. “It’s a big step in the wrong direction,” council member Mr. O’Brien said.


Seattle elections are officially nonpartisan, but the council members opposed to Shell’s drilling are mostly Democrats. That places them in political opposition to the Obama administration, which gave conditional approval for Shell to start drilling off Alaska last month.


Groups opposed to Arctic drilling, including the Sierra Club, filed a suit in March seeking to invalidate the Shell lease on grounds the port didn’t conduct an environmental analysis. Port officials argued one wasn’t necessary, and the case is pending in state district court.


The mayor and council, meanwhile, asked the Seattle Department of Planning and Development to look into the validity of the port’s permit to host Shell. In early May, the department found the terminal could host only cargo vessels and the port would have to apply for a new use permit. It gave the port, Foss and Shell until June 4 to comply, under penalty of fines that could reach $500 a day. Any penalties have been waived pending an appeal filed by Foss and the port have appealed the finding. A Shell spokesman said the company believes its contract with the port is valid, and that it hopes to begin the exploratory drilling in the Chukchi after July 15.


Port officials say breaking the rig agreement would cost hundreds of jobs, while they and Foss officials say it would give the facility an antibusiness reputation.


“Should we begin deciding if we want a vessel in our port based on what it will do afterward?” said Port Commissioner Bill Bryant. “This is a choice between middle-class jobs and symbolism.”


The presence of the ship on the Seattle waterfront has galvanized loud protests. Activists in kayaks—joined by council members Mr. O’Brien and Kshama Sawant—staged a demonstration on May 16. On May 18, activists and Ms. Sawant blocked a bridge leading to the terminal, shutting down work for the day. One activist later chained herself to a Shell support-vessel’s anchor chain. Ms. Sawant said she plans to continue trying to block Shell however she can.


“We absolutely cannot be taking a million steps backwards if we allow the Arctic to be drilled,” said Ms. Sawant. “This is a David versus Goliath fight.”


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