The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer in 1990 for its investigative coverage of the lax safety standards that facilitated one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of our time. Why is the newspaper supporting hosting a company and an Arctic drilling fleet with a terrible safety track record in Seattle?
The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer in 1990 for its investigative coverage of the lax safety standards that facilitated one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of our time. Why is the newspaper supporting a lease to host an Arctic drilling fleet with a terrible safety track record in Seattle? Nate Allred/Shutterstock

Just after midnight on this day in 1989, an oil tanker bound for southern California ran aground on an Alaskan reef, spilling more than 10 million gallons—though some say it was as much as 35 million gallons—of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. The spill, which occurred a hundred miles from Anchorage, impacted 1,300 miles of shoreline and, until the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ranked as the worst man-made environmental disaster in US history.

In 1990, the Seattle Times won a Pulitzer for a series of stories it published on the Exxon Valdez disaster, demonstrating in part how "big oil companies and shipping interests" convinced Congress to vote against safety standards that could have prevented much of the damage of the spill.

Today, the Seattle Times published an editorial in support of a lease to host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet here in Seattle. Despite the fact that Shell's fleet has a track record of felonies and high-profile mishaps in its quest for Arctic oil. Despite the fact that the federal government has predicted a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill in the Arctic if the type of drilling these rigs support goes forward. And despite the fact that local port commissioners subjected themselves to a verbal nondisclosure agreement to keep this deal secret from the public for months. The argument the Seattle Times makes to support our port's decision to host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet is an argument we've all heard before. It's one that shipping and oil company interests have made repeatedly. And it's ripe for picking apart.

So here goes. The Seattle Times editorial states:

SOON, two huge oil rigs will be parked at the Port of Seattle, preparing for a summer sailing to the Alaskan Arctic and for exploratory drilling.

Yup. The public only had six days of input before our port commission gave its CEO the green light to finalize the lease that made this a reality. The port, however, had considered the deal for months in secret, abiding by a "verbal nondisclosure agreement." A month before the deal became public, industry and labor groups lobbied port commissioners to support the Shell deal in person and by mail.

The Port’s decision in February to lease Terminal 5 to Foss Maritime, which will service the Royal Dutch Shell rigs, was appropriate because facilitating the maritime economy is what the Port does.

The port's slogan is, "Where a sustainable world is headed." But that's not what the port is doing by allowing this lease. Recent research published in Nature showed that opening up any Arctic oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with keeping the world from surpassing a two-degree Celsius rise in global warming—a disaster scenario. The Seattle Times' statement also fails to recognize that enabling the engines of climate change could do the opposite of facilitating the local maritime economy, potentially collapsing it in the long-term.

The Seattle Times should know this, because it won an award from the Society of Environmental Journalists for its reporting on ocean acidification in 2013. But in 2015, the paper's editorial board is backing a proposal that will enable more climate change and, by extension, further enable the ocean acidification that's threatening to collapse the Puget Sound food chain. "There are really three elements to this issue: One is public accountability, another is the local water impacts, whether it's from oil spills or industrial activity, and the third is climate impacts," Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said. "You can't ignore that.”

Environmental activists are arguing — loudly — that the Port should scuttle that lease as part of a proxy war over climate change. A coalition of groups have sued and on Friday learned their lawsuit will go forward.

This is no proxy war. Locals concerned with climate change are attempting to have a say in their future—a future that, as this deal shows, is being determined by oil company interests and backroom deals instead.

And Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, with backing of the Seattle City Council, has ordered a belated review of city-issued permits for the Terminal 5 lease, apparently with similar intentions.

The review primarily concerns potential impacts to Puget Sound, which the Seattle Times editorial board ignores—even though it has editorialized for more attention to Puget Sound cleanup efforts. The letter drafted by the city council reads: "In particular, the Council has serious concerns about Shell Oil’s drilling fleet coming to our waters in a damaged state, discharging oil and other toxic pollutants along our shorelines during transport and repair. Among the vessels in Shell Oil’s fleet is the Noble Discoverer, whose operator has plead guilty to eight felony offenses relating to environmental and maritime crimes, including discharging oil-contaminated water directly overboard."

Climate change is a real threat. But blocking those rigs at Terminal 5 wouldn’t stop Arctic drilling nor alter the course of climate change. Instead, undoing the Port lease would be a symbolic victory at the expense of the region’s vital maritime economy.

At a port commission meeting this afternoon, environmental lawyer Peter Goldman made the point that the same argument dismissing a "symbolic victory" could have been made about civil rights demonstrators marching in Selma in 1965. If Seattle could block Shell at its port, other communities could be inspired to block Shell at their ports.

With this statement, the Seattle Times is again looking only at the short-term interests of our "vital maritime economy." What about in the long-term, when the shellfish industry threatens to collapse due to ocean acidification caused by climate change—climate change accelerated by burning Arctic oil and gas?

If the lease were killed, Shell would likely divert operations to another Pacific port. Prince Rupert in British Columbia or Dutch Harbor in Alaska could step in.

But that wouldn't be as convenient for Shell. And what if communities at Prince Rupert or Dutch Harbor stepped up and did the same? Where would Shell be then? Moreover: The argument that we need to make money doing something damaging to the planet just because if we don't, someplace else will, is a terrible argument.

Environmentalists suggest that diverting those operations elsewhere could somehow change the fundamental economics of Arctic drilling. That ignores the $5 billion already invested in Arctic drilling efforts by Shell, as well as new regulations proposed by the Obama administration last monththat would allow oil exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, with stringent environmental protections.

So, Shell investing $5 billion in Arctic drilling means the rest of the public should invest their hearts and minds in it, too? The public should always have a say in their future, regardless of how much money an oil company has invested in putting that future in jeopardy. The Seattle Times also misleadingly refers to the Obama administration's proposed Arctic exploration regulations. Those rules wouldn't be finalized in time to regulate Shell's pursuits this summer.

While the focus has been on unsightly rigs to be parked on the waterfront, Seattle’s attention should also be on the estimated 500 to 700 jobs that will be supported by the lease.

Port commissioners have repeatedly cited two figures: Up to $28 million in revenue from the lease, and more than 200 family wage jobs. Where do those 300 to 500 additional jobs come in? And again, where is the long-term thinking? Are these short-term gains to Seattle worth the long-term cost to Seattle and the rest of the planet?

“The City of Seattle needs to decide if it wants to be a global player or to chase away family-wage jobs,” said Paul Stevens, chief executive of Foss Maritime, which holds the Terminal 5 lease to service the Shell rigs.

The lease will also help the Port of Seattle in the pitched battle for future maritime traffic. The two-year lease will generate about $13 million, which could expedite the Port’s plan to renovate Terminal 5 to accommodate behemoth next-generation cargo ships.

It was the port's choice to offer family wage jobs to support the work of Arctic drilling. They could have made the more responsible—and yes, arguably more difficult—choice to offer family wage jobs to support an endeavor that doesn't have a high probability of destroying Arctic ecosystems and accelerating climate change.

In other words, the Shell rigs are short-term parkers.

Today, the port commission passed a motion that would require the elected officials' approval for future extensions of the lease. But the current port commissioners' terms expire in 2017, if not earlier. Would a future port commission vote to extend the lease for Shell anyway? There's no guarantee that Shell would stay in Seattle for just the short-term.

Efforts to block this new business — including the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court by a coalition of environmental groups — focus on the Port’s internal processes, which authorized staff to negotiate the comparably small contract.

They're internal processes that also evaded public process. The port exempted itself from an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, which the lawsuit is currently challenging.

Those are micro-aggressions against a mega-problem.

What does that even mean? People standing up for their rights in a democracy, and for the overall future of the planet, is not "micro." Also, is the Seattle Times saying it's better to roll over in the face of a "mega-problem" if you can't personally do anything on a "mega" scale? Why not start locally? If we can't speak up on global issues affecting us on a local level, how do we expect to mobilize on issues of national and global importance at all?

The real fight should be over the oil leases themselves, which are issued by the U.S. Interior Department, led by Seattleite Sally Jewell, and for a new national energy policy that better addresses humankind’s role in changing our planet.

Which is why the Seattle city council signed a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today, asking her to reject Arctic drilling. Why didn't the port commission do the same? Why isn't the Seattle Times calling on Jewell to block the leases?

Seattle has been the gateway to Alaska since the city was founded. That vital economic link should not be broken for the symbolism of diverting a few oil rigs to another port.

Seattle's economy is also inextricable from the health of our oceans, and the health of Alaskan ecosystems in particular. It would be foolish to think anything otherwise, and to ignore the 75 percent risk of a spill while oil companies drill in the Arctic. As the Seattle Times taught us with its Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Valdez disaster, when we turn a blind eye to known risks in pursuit short-term gain, we are setting ourselves up for catastrophic results.