Kayaktivists trailing the Polar Pioneer, one of Shells rigs thats now moored in Port Angeles.
Kayaktivists trailing the Polar Pioneer, one of Shell's rigs that's now moored in Port Angeles. Kelly O

The City of Seattle, a handful of permits, and ice are now the only things standing in the way of Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic over the next two years.

Today, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved Shell's exploration plan for the Chukchi Sea this summer, which, until today, had been one of the company's biggest regulatory challenges. Shell's plans also involve mooring its Arctic drilling fleet in Seattle's Terminal 5, but last week the city threw a major obstacle in Shell's path when it ruled that Terminal 5's land use permit wouldn't allow for Arctic drilling equipment.

Shell racked up a tally of failures during its last Arctic exploration attempt in 2012, but none of that seems to have impeded its progress toward cementing a fossil-fuel-dependent future. Shell's most notorious 2012 failure was the Kulluk, a rig that grounded off a remote Alaskan island. The Noble Discoverer, another drill ship in Shell's fleet, drifted and caught fire; its operator, Noble Drilling, pleaded guilty to eight felonies for crimes committed during the same season. An oil-spill-containment system on a barge called the Arctic Challenger was also "crushed like a beer can" when federal regulators tested the system in Anacortes, Washington.

Newer data from the Washington Department of Ecology also shows that the Arctic Challenger ran into another problem in 2013 when a remotely operated vehicle cut off a hose on the barge's-oil spill-containment dome and spilled 24 gallons of hydraulic oil into Washington waters. Last month, Bob Bea, an expert on oil industry disasters and independent investigator of the Deepwater Horizon spill, told The Stranger that Shell's plans for the Arctic made him "very, very apprehensive." (Shell did not respond to requests for comment.)

Nevertheless, the Obama administration approved Shell's exploration plans within a month of receiving them. Critics sounded off on why they thought the administration's approval was a bad idea.

"The agency should not be approving such threatening plans based on a rushed and incomplete environmental and safety review," Erik Grafe, Earthjustice staff attorney, said in a statement. "Ultimately, Arctic Ocean drilling is far too risky and undermines the administration’s efforts to address climate change and transition to a clean energy future. These fossil fuels need to remain in the ground.”

Greenpeace echoed a similar sentiment. "Instead of holding Shell accountable and moving the country towards a sustainable future, our federal regulators are catering to an ill-prepared company in a region that does not tolerate cutting corners," Greenpeace research specialist Tim Donaghy said in a statement. "Shell has a history of dangerous malfunctioning in the Arctic while global scientists agree that Arctic oil must stay in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change."

Tomorrow (at 1 p.m.), Seattle's port commissioners will discuss (in public!) what to do about the city's opposition to their lease for Shell, and later this week, activists will launch their festival of resistance against the Arctic drilling fleet in Puget Sound. Will the port reapply for a city permit? Or will it engage with the city—as encouraged by city council members Mike O'Brien, Kshama Sawant, and (even!) Tim Burgess—to find ways to come up with family-wage jobs that don't help Shell drill in the Arctic?

Shell executive Ann Pickard has said that mooring in Seattle remains Shell's first choice, though the company does have a Plan B. So, yes, other ports could very well accept easy money to play pawn in Shell's drilling plans. But if Seattle doesn't stand up, who will?