Fred Felleman says hed elevate environmental concerns at the Port of Seattle.
Fred Felleman, a marine biologist, says he'd be a voice for the environment at the Port of Seattle. Courtesy of Fred Felleman

Port commissioner Bill Bryant, who's up for reelection this year, describes himself as a conservationist. It's a position you might expect from an elected official in King County. But what's atypical about Bill Bryant is how much his stated platform appears to contradict his actual position: that of the most vocal pro-Shell commissioner at the port.

That much is making environmental consultant and marine biologist Fred Felleman give serious thought to running against Bryant himself.

"This Shell lease is putting me over the top," Felleman said. "Their lack of forethought was all of a sudden our emergency. I think the public deserves better."

Felleman, who currently consults for Friends of the Earth, has a long history with the Port of Seattle. In 2009, for example, Felleman successfully lobbied to have the port permanently remove some of the most toxic silt from its Terminal 30 dredging project instead of burying it somewhere else in Elliott Bay. He also served on the finance committee for the port's Century Agenda, a plan to add 100,000 jobs to the local economy over the next two decades. And when Gael Tarleton left the port commission to take a position in the state legislature in 2013, Felleman applied for the remainder of her term. (Courtney Gregoire, daughter of former governor Chris Gregoire, won the gig instead.)

Earlier this week, the port commission met in a private executive session after Mayor Ed Murray threw down one hell of a gauntlet, announcing that the port would be violating its land use permit by allowing Arctic drilling equipment at Terminal 5. The mayor asked the five-person port commission to think of it as an opportunity to reconsider its decision to host Shell's fleet.

Felleman showed up to the port's special meeting, as did several activists, although only one port commissioner, Stephanie Bowman, showed her face before exiting to the back room where the closed-door session was taking place.

"If the public knew more about the decisions the port was making on an ongoing basis, it would allow for environmental [considerations] to be part of decision-making," Felleman told me over the phone a day earlier.

Port commissioner John Creighton has said that if electeds start exercising control over the types of business activities at the port, it'll lead to a set of arbitrary and anti-business conditions. In other words, why reject Shell's Arctic drilling rigs if one day you also might reject shipments of GMO wheat?*

"There's no single issue more critical to our survival of climate change," Felleman said. "This short-term, relatively small amount of money is not the kind of decision-making that shows any kind of forethought. Precedent-setting issues are often used to negate the significance of existing ones."

Then again, the port serves an enormous role in the local economy. Bryant has repeatedly said he's unwilling to sacrifice family-wage jobs, and union and maritime-industry lobbying for the Shell lease will likely become familiar ammunition against a candidate running on an environmental platform.

Felleman said that environmental cleanups create jobs, too. And he also has an interesting theory about the long-term sustainability of jobs at the port: "The port is one of the best generators of high incomes, without needing higher levels of education," Felleman said. "I think it's really important that we retain a full spectrum of employment in the region, but because the Port of Seattle is tucked right into the city, there's extraordinary pressure to build condos on those docks."

The potential candidate went on to say that because that real estate is so valuable, it's more important now that the port maintains a "social license" with the citizens of Seattle so it can keep doing business in good faith. Risk that social license with shady decision-making, Felleman warned, and you invite condo development instead.

Felleman is still considering the idea of his own candidacy. He's waiting to see who else files, and whether Bryant ends up running for governor. The port's decision next week about Mayor Murray's position and the lease for Shell, he said, could influence his decision to run. (The deadline is next Friday.)

*[Ed. note: For the record, there's overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change; scientific consensus also says GMOs are safe to eat. So hopefully whoever gets elected as port commissioner would make science-driven decisions, and not ones solely driven by profit (Shell) or unsubstantiated fear (GMOs).]