Drilling for oil in the Arctic is incredibly expensive and risky, and thus far has proven unsuccessful. And yet Seattle port commissioners have offered to house Shells Arctic drilling fleet.
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  • Drilling for oil in the Arctic is incredibly expensive and risky, and thus far has proven unsuccessful. And yet Seattle port commissioners have offered to house Shell's Arctic drilling fleet.

Last week, with little notice and minimal public debate, the Port of Seattle decided to become the home port for Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet. The deal had been kept secret for months, as port staff and Shell undoubtedly knew Seattle-area residents would vigorously oppose the use of our publicly owned port for this purpose. Only Commissioners Tom Albro and Courtney Gregoire attempted to call a “time-out” on Shell’s approval, so that the people of Seattle could be fully included in the decision, but that call was rejected.

The urgent reasons for taking climate change seriously have been presented credibly and convincingly many times, most recently in Nature, which identified Arctic oil as the natural resource that must remain entirely unburned if we’re to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Seattle, King County, and Washington State have all stepped up to the climate challenge. Seattle made us proud by being the first city in the nation to commit to divesting its investments from fossil fuel companies. Seattle and King County have led an important coalition of cities and tribes against coal and oil trains. Even the port set the bar high with a tagline of “Where a Sustainable World is Headed.”

Why then would our city offer to host a fleet headed for the pristine Arctic? Port commissioners will claim this doesn’t matter because Arctic oil drilling will occur regardless of whether Seattle leases port facilities to Shell or not. Putting aside the deep cynicism of trying to profit from environmental catastrophe, that position is also factually wrong.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is incredibly expensive and risky, and thus far has proven unsuccessful. To date, Shell has wasted more than $6 billion and many years in its attempts, without anything to show for it. The New York Times’ recent exposé on the grounding of Shell’s oil exploration rig, the Kulluk, showed maritime rules being flouted and lives put at risk in a reckless attempt to reduce the costs of drilling.

Those costs and challenges are so prohibitive that every other oil company with permission to explore for offshore oil in the US Arctic has given up. Shell is the last company standing, apparently prepared to risk billions on a bet that countries will fail to negotiate an effective limit on global warming emissions, and that oil prices will rise again. Ironically, Shell is also betting that melting Arctic ice will make it easier to drill.

It is also not guaranteed that Shell will get approval from Obama’s administration to drill at all. The lease sale that gave them drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea expires in 2017. The lease is under environmental review, and the potential risks keep getting worse. The most recent study from the US government said that if oil is produced in the Chukchi Sea there is a 75 percent chance of two large oil spills happening, in an area far more difficult to reach than, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. That’s oil that Seattle does not want on its hands.

Shell’s ability to explore for oil is tenuous at best. By cutting this deal to lease Terminal 5 and host Shell’s fleet of 26 ships, the Port of Seattle is helping Shell cut costs and keep its Arctic drilling dreams alive—but we should be trying to run out the clock on their schemes, not facilitating them.

So what happens now? Well, the port collects more than $70 million a year in property taxes. The port commissioners stand for election, and each one claims to be an environmentalist. Yet when given the opportunity to say no to Arctic drilling, the commissioners turned their backs on port goals, campaign promises, the taxpayers who oppose drilling, and the public interest. If you pay taxes in King County, your money will now support oil drilling in the Arctic, and you weren’t even given a chance to weigh in. This is unacceptable.

We are writing today because we love Seattle. We are proud of its leadership on the environment. The world can’t survive by turning a blind eye to climate change, and we all have a part to play. Let’s not kid ourselves that this will be easy. It means changing a lot of things that we used to accept as normal. It means making hard choices. It means turning down easy money today because we believe in a different future.

Seattle can do that. So can the Port of Seattle. It needs to live up to our shared values, and say it will not facilitate drilling in the Arctic.

Port commissioners, it’s your turn. Will you allow a full and honest debate? Because the debate will occur, spurred on by the sight of Shell’s drilling fleet sailing in and out of our beloved Puget Sound waters. To ask Seattle to turn a blind eye would be a disservice to your role as publicly elected officials. We’re asking you to hit the pause button on the lease; let’s talk about what we really stand for.

Mike McGinn, former Seattle Mayor
Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. Seattle born and raised.
Jesse Piedfort, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Seattle Group
Emily Johnston, 350 Seattle