Tacoma could accommodate Shell Arctic fleet, but port unsure whether it wants the controversy

John Gillie, May 17, 2015, The News Tribune

In the not-too-distant past, the Port of Tacoma never hesitated pursuing business that its rival Port of Seattle might lose.


But as the two ports are moving toward a new competitive detente, the Port of Tacoma is showing little active interest in attracting business now threatened by environmental activists and court challenges at the Port of Seattle’s otherwise vacant Terminal 5.


That business, which has created more than 400 jobs in Seattle, calls for Shell Oil Co.’s Arctic fleet of drilling rigs, supply vessels, cleanup boats and barges to be stocked and repaired at Terminal 5 as the oil company prepares to head to the Arctic to drill for oil. The Port of Seattle has signed a two-year, $13 million contract with Seattle-based Foss Maritime for use of a 50-acre portion of the former container terminal.


But the city of Seattle has raised questions about whether Foss’ and Shell’s activity is permitted under city land-use regulations. The city says those rules only allow “cargo” activity at Terminal 5.


While the city and the port sort out what’s permitted at the terminal, Foss and Shell are proceeding with their planned activities bringing two huge drilling rigs, the Noble Discovery and the Polar Pioneer, to Terminal 5 along with several other service vessels. The arrival of the two rigs has triggered protests by environmental groups concerned about potential damage to the Arctic marine environment.


While it appears that Shell may get its work done at Terminal 5 before a court can issue a decision this year, if the court favors the city and the environmentalists, the oil company could be looking for a new Puget Sound base beginning late this summer.


The Port of Tacoma theoretically could accommodate Shell’s business at underused terminals, but the port isn’t showing any interest in marketing itself to Shell.


“We believe the Port of Seattle has a valid contract with Foss,” said Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina. “We don’t want to interfere with their business.”


Neither Foss nor Shell has approached Tacoma about moving the Arctic business to the port, and the port has made no sales pitches to the oil company, said Mattina.


The Port of Tacoma has three sites that possibly would be available to moor and supply Shell’s fleet. Two, the APM Terminal and Terminal 7, are both on the Sitcum Waterway adjacent to the port’s headquarters. One berth at APM has periodically been used for long-term storage of an older Horizon Lines vessel, the Horizon Consumer. That vessel has left the port, leaving the berth where it was tied up vacant.


The Terminal 7 berth is not being used to its full potential, making it a possible mooring spot for Shell vessels.


The third potential berth of the Shell vessels is on the Blair Waterway adjacent to the active TOTE terminal. TOTE, like Horizon Lines, carries cargoes between Tacoma and Alaska. TOTE had one of its older ships, the Great Land, tied up at that berth for months while it was in backup status. The Great Land subsequently was towed to a Brownsville, Texas, shipyard for dismantling.


TOTE and Foss are both owned by Seattle’s privately held Saltchuk Resources.


Port of Tacoma Commission President Don Johnson said the port has yet to do any kind of evaluation of the pros and cons of hosting the Shell fleet.


“If they approached us, then we’d sit down and do a thorough evaluation,” he said.


“We’ll evaluate it as a business decision,” he said, “There are a lot of jobs that come with it, and we’re always interested in creating new jobs.”


Port of Tacoma Commissioner Don Meyer said he’s wary on any deal with Shell that could bring controversy to the port that for years has conducted its Alaska business with few issues.

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