This is so fucking sneaky. There's just no other way to say it. On February 9, the Port of Seattle CEO signed a two-year lease with Foss Maritime that would allow Shell to park its Arctic oil drilling vessels at the Seattle port in the drilling off-season. And the public process leading up to this behind-closed-doors lease approval?
Last month, the Port Commission held only one public meeting on the quietly negotiated deal, during which port commissioners all expressed some degree of environmental angst. (Remember, the port's slogan is "Where a sustainable world is headed.") At the end of the meeting, however, port commissioners ultimately allowed the decision to progress. Commissioner Courtney Gregoire (Christine Gregoire's daughter) called for "much more robust discussion" on environmental issues going forward. But when it came to the Shell lease, that never happened.
Then last night, the Seattle Times reported that port CEO Ted Fick sent a letter to Earthjustice, the environmental group, revealing that he had already signed the lease. The letter (read it here) was sent February 11. The lease was signed two days earlier. The Port Commission held a meeting on Tuesday afternoon—the day after Fick signed the lease—and did not discuss the deal at all.
Did the port commissioners know that Fick had signed off on the lease that had caused them all angst? Yes, according to Peter McGraw, port spokesperson. And did they see the letter Fick sent? "Of course," he said.
Well, then what about that whole idea of "robust discussion" of environmental issues that Courtney Gregoire talked about? Would any of the commissioners comment? "The commissioners have said what they wanted to say at the meeting you attended," McGraw said. "There’s not going to be further comment from them at this time."
"We're outraged that the lease was signed, and trying to figure out exactly what happened, and what our options are," said Emily Johnston of environmental group 350 Seattle in an e-mail. "The process is absurdly opaque: did the Commissioners really just ignore the thousands of e-mail messages they've been receiving, and run roughshod over the overwhelming public desire for hearings on this?"
Earthjustice, 350 Seattle, and a slew of other environmental groups had written to the port a couple of weeks after the single public meeting on the deal, asking that the port review the proposal in light of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). By going forward without an environmental review and more public comment sessions, the port could be flying in the face of state law, the letter writers argued. If the port didn't comply, Earthjustice Northwest’s managing attorney, Patti Goldman, said there could be a lawsuit in the works.
The letter back to Earthjustice from Fick referred to a port review that upheld the decision in light of SEPA. Goldman, the Earthjustice attorney, said that she's asked the port for a copy of that SEPA record as well as the lease itself, which would outline how exactly the terminal is being used. The port, she said, is treating her response as a public records request.
"[The port] is an elected body to represent the people of Seattle," Goldman said. "They say that they're sustainable. That's not happening."
Jesse Piedfort, chair of the Sierra Club of Seattle, also sent along this statement:
"This was an irresponsible decision made behind closed doors that the Sierra Club will do everything it can to reverse. We're extremely disappointed in Commissioners Creighton, Bowman, and Bryant, and when it comes to election time we'll remember who sided with Shell over Seattle values."
Some context for that last bit: Commissioner Tom Albro deserves some credit for bringing up a motion that could have stalled or prevented the Shell decision at the last meeting. Commissioner Gregoire could have seconded his motion, but noted that commissioners Stephanie Bowman, Bill Bryant, and John Creighton—a commission majority—were opposed to the idea. So Albro's motion wasn't even voted on at all.
A more cynical view: All the commissioners—including Gregoire—knew something. They knew that if Albro's motion was, indeed, voted on, then they'd all be on the record with a vote on the Shell deal. Then, in the next election, their votes "for" and "against" support for Arctic drilling would become ammunition. (Heaven forbid.) Technically, because of the way this went down at the public meeting, the vote never happened. Which means all the commissioners can wipe their hands clean of this Shell deal, at least as far as their public vote records are concerned.
Two-faced? Yes. Cowardly in the way that they avoided more public comment? Also yes.
UPDATE 6:12 pm: In an e-mail to The Stranger, Gregoire writes:
This is the wrong project for the Port of Seattle. I opposed it at the January 13th Port Commission meeting, and I oppose it today. At that meeting, I said that drilling in the arctic is fundamentally inconsistent with my values.
Leading up to the meeting and—again—at that meeting, I urged the Port to reject the lease or, at the very least, allow for greater public dialogue. Unfortunately, the majority of the Commission did not agree and supported leaving the decision about the lease to the discretion of our CEO.
During my two years as a Commissioner, I have fought for a strong maritime industry in our region. One important step is upgrading Terminal 5 for larger container vessels—to ensure that our Port can remain competitive and support economic growth for years to come. We need to find interim uses for Terminal 5 during these upgrades, but I believe we need to find uses consistent with our values.