Here are port commissioners Stephanie Bowman, Tom Albro, and John Creighton peeking out of some underbutt. The selection is random; there was not enough room to include fellow port commissioners Courtney Gregoire and Bill Bryant.
Here are port commissioners Stephanie Bowman, Tom Albro, and John Creighton peeking out of some underbutt. The selection is random; there was not enough room to include fellow port commissioners Courtney Gregoire and Bill Bryant. Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock; Port of Seattle

UNDERBUTTS AHOY!* A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Port of Seattle over its plan to use one of its terminals to moor Shell's Arctic drilling fleet. Yes, Arctic drilling sucks. But no, the lawsuit isn't really about how much it sucks.

So in a desperate attempt to get you to care about this lawsuit, I am humbly swiping former Stranger writer Anna Minard's stroke of evil genius. (See here.)

Here's the meat of it, or, if you prefer, the underbutt of it:

On paper, the lawsuit is about the glorious subtleties of shoreline zoning laws and interim uses for Terminal 5. (Oh god, it's so boring.) In spirit, though, the lawsuit is really about all the public processes tied to those laws, and whether the Port of Seattle wiggled past 'em in order to give Shell a place to park its oil-sucking equipment.

SparkNotes version: Think of this lawsuit as one battle in a larger war against Arctic drilling, in which any ammo that environmental groups—and the public—can use to stall oil companies' destruction of Arctic ecosystems and prevent more global warming is worth firing.

As for actual legal arguments, what enviros are saying in the suit is that the port needed to go to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development to ask for a specific permit that would allow them to use Terminal 5 to host Shell's drilling rigs. All of which would have required more public process, and more opportunities for people to speak their minds on Arctic drilling. Enviros are also saying that the port's use of a State Environmental Policy Act exemption to bypass a full-fledged environmental review process is in violation of the law. Their argument rests on the distinction that Terminal 5 is really going to be used for mooring (and some maintenance) instead of loading and unloading container ships.

Got it? Stay with me! You can do it! Yes. You. Can. Plus, here's more underbutt.

Heres a picture of the Kulluk, one of Shells Arctic drilling rigs that grounded in 2012. Now its grounded on some underbutt.
Here's a picture of the Kulluk, one of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs that grounded in 2012. Now it's grounded near some underbutt. Loginova Elena/Shutterstock; US Coast Guard

"This isn't about moving goods around, it's about a homeport. It's a different kind of use," says Patti Goldman, Earthjustice staff attorney. "[The port] should have gone to Seattle and said, 'We want to change its use permanently or temporarily.' And that would have had public process, and it would have been a decision that groups like ours could challenge."

Here's a statement from the Port of Seattle:

Through careful review the Port of Seattle believes it has complied with all necessary environmental requirements with regard to Foss Maritime’s interim use of Terminal 5. We are committed to fully comply with any/all requirements and regulations.
 
In addition, we have received a shoreline substantial development permit exemption from the City of Seattle for this use.
 
The port has not received the details of any lawsuit at this time. We would review any such documents and work constructively with our stakeholders.

Here is the lawsuit the port says it doesn't have.

And here's Foss Maritime spokesperson Paul Queary:

Terminal 5 is permitted to tie up ships while they are being loaded and unloaded. Those are the services Foss will provide to the Arctic exploration fleet.
 
In terms of local impact, our use of Terminal 5 should have far less impact than the prior use, when the terminal was a busy container port, with ships constantly loading and unloading, requiring a steady stream of trucks coming to and from the terminal.
 
Terminal 5 is not a shipyard. Should any of the vessels need significant repairs, that work would be done elsewhere at a suitable facility.

Finally—okay, not finally, but I'm out of underbutt shots so gotta keep you in this somehow—here's Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who sums up all this gobbledygook rather neatly: "I think when people initially hear about a lawsuit against the port on something that's relating to basically leasing land, they're going to be a little confused and wondering [if that] isn't that sort of far removed," he says. "But I believe that this is the kind of legal action that is needed to really highlight the potential destruction that our world faces by the increasing reliance on [fossil] fuels."

Using the bully pulpit, Licata adds, is also a worthy exercise. City council member Mike O'Brien stands with him on that one. "A ‘sustainable world’ is not one headed towards more Arctic drilling," O'Brien says in a a statement. "And I am strongly opposed to the Port’s backroom deal-making to become the new homeport to Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet."

Really almost finally, here's greenie former mayor Mike McGinn: "I hope the commissioners realize how divisive it is to force Seattle to support Arctic Oil drilling. Prudent stewardship of the Port does not mean thumbing their noses at the public and climate change—it should mean listening and adapting."

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Actual final underbutt point, from yours truly: This means that local environmental groups (and some city council members) are standing up to Shell. A really granular lawsuit is one way to do that. If they win, it could set a precedent for other ports in other places full of people who also don't like Arctic drilling.

(Btw: Council Member Tim Burgess declined to comment, and we haven't heard back yet from the other city officials. We'll update if we do.)

*Thank you to The Stranger's art department for magical Photoshop skills in the lead image!

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