Arctic drilling equipment is allowed at Port of Seattle cargo terminals, according to the Seattle Hearing Examiners office, because it carries stuff.
Arctic drilling equipment is allowed at Port of Seattle cargo terminals, according to the Seattle Hearing Examiner's office, because it carries stuff. Heidi Groover

The mayor, the city council, and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) have lost a battle over whether hosting Arctic drilling equipment is kosher at the Port of Seattle's Terminal 5.

The argument started earlier this year, after the port quietly signed a lease with local shipping company Foss Maritime in order to host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet at the space. During the weeks of public protest that followed, Mayor Ed Murray and the city council decided to step in. They came up with a joint initiative that asked the Department of Planning and Development to review the land use permit for Terminal 5, and whether that permit even allowed for hosting Arctic drilling equipment.

When the DPD ruled that storing Arctic drilling equipment didn't fall into the definition of what a "cargo terminal" does, Foss and the port filed an appeal with the city Hearing Examiner. Their argument, boiled down into two parts: 1) The DPD didn't know what the fuck it was talking about when it came to cargo terminals 2) Further, if the city were to start defining what was or was not allowed at a cargo terminal, it could limit all sorts of regular shipping or fishing activities at any cargo terminal, like at Terminal 91, for example.

This morning, Seattle Deputy Hearing Examiner Anne Watanabe agreed with the port and Foss's first argument—that the DPD didn't know what the fuck it was talking about when it came to cargo terminals. The second argument, Watanabe wrote, didn't need to be considered because the conflict only concerned Foss operations at Terminal 5. So all that scary stuff about the city wanting to screw up port business at all cargo terminals? Not relevant. However, Watanabe did rule that Foss's activities for the Polar Pioneer and its support vessels were cargo terminal activities and the DPD interpretation was "clearly erroneous."

In practical terms, all of this may be a bit moot. Shell is now pulling out of the Arctic, and its local host—Foss Maritime—is possibly considering new clients to occupy the two-year space for which Shell has paid at the Port of Seattle's Terminal 5.

But if Shell or any other company is looking to give offshore Arctic drilling (or, potentially, another controversial fossil fuels project) another try and wants to dock in Seattle, now we know that any cargo terminal at the Port of Seattle can legally accommodate them. (And that the city has less power than it thought to do anything about it.)

Foss, understandably, is pleased. "The ruling is an encouraging sign that Seattle will continue to welcome the maritime industry, which has provided jobs, tax revenue and other economic benefits since the city was founded," Foss spokesman Paul Queary said in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to working with the City of Seattle in the future to improve the business climate for the maritime industry."

Environmentalists, understandably, are not pleased. "We're definitely considering an appeal," Earthjustice lawyer Patti Goldman said.

Mayor Murray also expressed his disappointment in an e-mailed statement. "While I am disappointed that the hearing examiner ruled that servicing off-shore drilling rigs is a cargo terminal use, I will respect the ruling," he said. "Shell has made a business decision to halt further off-shore oil exploration in Alaska. Now is the time for us to come together to collaborate on new projects to support the growth of maritime jobs while protecting our natural environment. I look forward to renewing the City’s partnership with the Port, Foss Maritime, our unions and other maritime interests to build a vibrant future for our harbor."

The bigger beef here, though, isn't what a cargo terminal is or isn't. It's not even about a single Arctic drilling rig. The fundamental issue at play for the port was whether it would give the public the opportunity to weigh in on a public agency's doings when it found them to be nontransparent and unethical. The port railroaded public participation on the lease with Foss, which is partly a function of how the port has traditionally operated in years past, but also a function of who sits on the port commission—a body of five feckless elected King County officials who are supposed to represent the public's interests.

City Council Member Mike O'Brien, who paddled out in a kayak to protest the Polar Pioneer while it was in Seattle, also said he was disappointed by the ruling. "But I think at the end of the day most of these decisions and directions are going to be considered by elected officials, including elected officials at the port," he said. "Obviously a change of leadership with Bill Bryant stepping down, and the two opponents [who] both opposed the Arctic drilling rig, that alone will have far more impact than the Hearing Examiner's ruling over the port as an environmental steward."