- US Coast Guard
- An image of the Noble Discoverer, a Shell Arctic drilling ship that became the subject of eight felony offenses for dumping wastewater overboard and evading other environmental regulations. This is one of the ships that would hang out in Seattle's port, environmental groups say.
The Seattle port's proposal to sub-lease one of its terminals to Arctic drilling ships this summer has met a new challenge from a coalition of environmental groups and former mayor Mike McGinn. Rushing the decision-making process without a thorough environmental review might rely on a flimsy loophole in state law, they argue in a letter sent to the Port Commission today.
Two weeks ago, the Seattle Port Commission held the first public hearing devoted to the issue of sub-leasing the port to Shell’s Arctic drilling ships. Those ships would include vessels like the Noble Discoverer, which became the subject of eight felony offenses for evading regulations and dumping contaminated water overboard. Foss Maritime (the terminal’s primary leasee), Shell, and port executives had kept the deal quiet until that public meeting. Now environmental groups—including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Climate Solutions, and the Washington Environmental Council, among others—say that the hastiness to push the deal through doesn’t take into account protections guaranteed by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
In order to sublet the terminal to Shell, the letter contends that the Commission used a loophole in SEPA—one that argues no environmental review is required when the activities at the terminal "remain essentially the same." But environmentalists say that subletting the terminal to beat-up Arctic drilling ships poses different environmental problems than subletting the terminal to container ships.
"We know that these [Shell] ships need servicing from a season up in the Arctic," Patti Goldman, Northwest managing attorney at Earthjustice, said. "If there’s some shipyard activity, that has a lot of toxic runoff. The second issue we’re talking about is a drilling fleet that has had a lot of problems, including criminal prosecutions for evading environmental regulations."
If the port, Foss, and Shell really are playing a game of environmental hopscotch, the environmental groups argue that the port would have to go back and review the proposal. This would require at least one environmental review from a local agency and more public comment sessions (i.e. no more avoiding Seattle's ample and vocal eco-nerd population).
But the heart of the environmental groups' argument has less to do with impacts on-site and more to do with how Shell’s drilling activities would affect the Arctic. A recent study in Nature showed that unlocking the Arctic's oil and gas reserves could tip global warming past a 2 degree Celsius safety limit by the end of the century. In other words: Why would the Seattle port continue to draw profits from activities that have the potential to wreak global havoc?
"I think the biggest concern is that it's just really inconsistent with Seattle’s values," former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn said. "We’re leading in so many different areas, working hard to demonstrate how you build a sustainable economy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and here we are facilitating the destruction of the Arctic."
The Obama administration also made moves this week to limit Arctic drilling, and Shell's existing Arctic drilling leases are currently undergoing environmental review. If the final review—which is expected by the end of February—gives federal lawmakers serious pause, it's possible it could hamper Shell’s plans for future drilling.
But if the port doesn’t furnish time for an additional environmental review, Goldman says the issue could turn into a lawsuit.
"What we hope will happen is the port will reconsider, and follow the public process, and make the decision at a Port Commissioner level that will be public record," she said. "If they don’t, we are seriously considering going to court."
The Port Commission issued a short statement in response to the environmental groups’ criticisms: "This opportunity has the potential to create hundreds of family-wage jobs and generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the region. We also respect the differences of opinion amongst community stakeholders and Commissioners, and will carefully review their letter and concerns."
Read the full letter here.