For months, secret negotiations that would end up helping the Royal Dutch Shell oil company had been under way at the Port of Seattle, whose slogan is "Where a sustainable world is headed." Then on January 7, the SeattlePI.com broke the news: A partnership between Shell and the port had been proposed, part of a deal that would create a new winter home for the $234 billion oil company's Arctic drilling fleet. It was the first time the public learned a climate bomb might be stashed on Seattle's waterfront, and it was followed, less than a week later, by a strange public meeting of the elected officials who make up our local port commission.
That meeting took place in a Sea-Tac Airport conference room in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, and it involved some swift and questionable decision making—whether by design or happenstance is unclear. During the meeting, all five port commissioners expressed discomfort with the potential environmental impacts of Arctic drilling, but when one commissioner—Tom Albro—raised a motion that could have stalled the push to host Shell's rigs and led to more debate, no one seconded his motion. Absent a second, the deal was effectively sealed and the five-day period for the people of Seattle to react to this proposal ended.
The speed with which this public process played out stands in stark contrast to the more than four months that were taken for behind-closed-doors decision making at the port, where commissioners knew about the proposed lease for Shell's Arctic vessels as early as late summer of 2014. "If one were to run an actual public process, the port would have heard loud and clear from the public, 'Please don't do this,'" Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien told The Stranger. "Whoever's in charge of the port knew the answer they would get, so they designed a process that was very secretive with the absolute minimum of public input as possible."
Shell declined to comment on the negotiations, but among the notable elements of the secretive proceedings that led to the deal: a "verbal nondisclosure" agreement that benefitted the company, in which local elected officials, according to a source familiar with port commission proceedings, understood they were not to talk about the ongoing deal.
To understand the scale of what happened as a result of this sham of a democratic process, it helps to take a step back from Roberts Rules of Order and the port commission's normally snoozy meetings—way back. Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska this summer hold significant and potentially dire consequences for the entire planet. A research letter published in the journal Nature in January argued that all Arctic oil and gas reserves should be considered "unburnable" in order to prevent anything above a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature by the end of this century—a tipping point scientists have long believed will trigger dangerous permanent damage.
Nevertheless, Shell wants to drill in the Arctic this summer and Seattle makes a perfect winter home for the company's rigs. It's not too long a trip to get here by sea from Shell's leases in the Arctic circle, and the Port of Seattle doesn't involve the kinds of fossil fuel property taxes Alaska's Dutch Harbor does, according to environmental lawyer Peter Goldman. (If you wonder whether paying taxes really matters to a $234 billion company, consider that Shell has recently demonstrated how much it's willing to do in order to avoid them. In 2014, a coast guard investigation found that taxes were at least part of the reason why the company decided to route a rig called the Kulluk from Alaska to Seattle in the winter of 2012. During that trip toward Seattle, the rig grounded off of Sitkalidak Island. It was carrying more than 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel.)
It now appears that nothing about the proposed deal with Shell stopped the Port of Seattle staff from pursuing the estimated $28 million in revenue that will be generated by Foss Maritime allowing its terminal to be used as shelter for Shell's Arctic drilling fleet. Not the climate-change considerations, not the company's history of trouble drilling in the Arctic, nothing. Nor did anything prevent port staff and King County's five publicly elected port commissioners from keeping the deal quiet for at least four months under a mutually understood cone of silence that conveniently left no paper trail.
As a result, Shell, Foss, and the port had months to prepare the deal, but the public had only five days to understand what was going on. Foss Maritime, the company leasing the port's Terminal 5 for Shell's fleet, made good use of the head start.
Port documents show that by January 9, four days before the brief public meeting at which Albro raised his doomed motion, Foss had already drafted basic terms of the future lease in a letter of understanding with the port. Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick then signed that letter the same day that the public was allowed to testify for or against such an idea. Less than a month later, on February 9, Fick signed the formal lease, too. One day after that: another public port commission meeting at which the Shell question—now a fait accompli—was never raised.
Why did elected port commissioners ever place themselves under a gag order on a matter of such importance?
"All of last year [the nondisclosure] seemed ordinary," Commissioner Tom Albro explained in a phone call to The Stranger. To him, it was just part of proprietary business operations, a way to allow Foss to proceed with what he assumed was a competitive process of luring Shell's dollars. "At a certain point, though, we do need to be transparent when we're getting ready to make decisions, which is a different thing than negotiation or staff developing alternatives for us to consider."
Albro wouldn't articulate when he may have felt standard business protocol started encroaching on public democratic process. But in late December, according to the source close to port proceedings, commissioners started receiving carefully worded letters from industry and labor groups asking the officials to support Foss's lease with Shell. By that point, the Foss-Shell deal still hadn't been leaked to the press, nor had port commissioners held a public meeting on the subject. This effectively created a situation in which business interests were lobbying port commissioners about a deal that would be nearly—or, perhaps, entirely—cooked by the time the public became aware of what was going on.
By December, port commission copresident Courtney Gregoire (former governor Chris Gregoire's daughter) says she'd started demanding a public hearing. Soon, the majority of commissioners decided to put the Shell decision on the public agenda. They didn't have to. Technically, a short-term lease was well under the purview of the Port of Seattle CEO's authority. The port, alarmingly, could have signed the lease with Foss Maritime without any public debate at all. But something didn't feel right about letting the lease slide by, according to Gregoire.
In her mind, the January 13 meeting wasn't sufficient, either. "Before and during the [public] meeting, I did urge a more robust public process," Gregoire wrote in an e-mail to The Stranger. "At the January 13th meeting, I specifically requested a delay in Commission direction until at least one additional public meeting could be held. The majority of the Commission did not support that request."
By the time that January 13 public meeting actually happened, it appears that something on the port commission had already jelled—perhaps during the months of pre-transparent executive briefings that occurred outside the realm of public debate. For more than one commissioner, what jelled was a cynical and defeatist (and, some might say, realistic) sense of the future, a conclusion that rejecting the Foss lease wouldn't affect Arctic drilling one way or the other.
"If Foss did not bring Shell to Seattle, they would go to Tacoma or Dutch Harbor," Commissioner John Creighton explained in an e-mailed statement to The Stranger that was almost identical to the argument he made at the January 13 meeting. "So by denying the lease to Foss, we would be taking more or less a symbolic stance."
Commissioner Bill Bryant had taken a similar position by January 13. Bryant argued that "rejecting this lease is not going to affect Arctic exploration," and that "rejecting this lease would be an act of political symbolism, but it would be symbolism at the expense of the middle class."
At the public meeting, port commission copresident Stephanie Bowman sided with Creighton and Bryant. The motion Albro then proposed would have stripped authority on short-term leases from the port CEO. It was an opportunity to force an on-the-record vote on the issue, and create room for more debate. But no one seconded it—not even Gregoire, who, like Albro, says she opposed the lease. According to Gregoire, she let the motion fail because it was overly broad. She wanted a motion that would reject the Shell lease, not one that would tie all short-term leases to the commission's approval. But by that time, she also realized that no matter what, the commission was split, three to two. Any vote to reject the lease would fail.
The port commissioners aren't the only ones who've kept disturbingly quiet about Shell's Seattle deal. US senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray were asked to comment, but didn't. Governor Jay Inslee, a leader who's staked out his reputation as America's "greenest governor," has also stayed silent about a major Washington State port facilitating one of the biggest threats to global climate. "Our team has been monitoring the discussion but our office doesn't have any comment," Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith said in an e-mail.
The Seattle City Council, however, will soon get involved. Council Member Mike O'Brien says he's working on a resolution with fellow council members that would declare the city's opposition to hosting the Arctic drilling rigs. "One thing that's clear to me is that the people of Seattle and the people of King County are not supportive of drilling in the Arctic," O'Brien said. "That seems to be a core value of people in this region."
Retroactively, it's unclear how much O'Brien's resolution would accomplish other than publicly shaming the port. But environmental groups are seriously considering litigation over the port's environmental review process. And in the face of public criticism, at least two port commissioners—Albro and Gregoire—are reiterating opposition to the Shell deal.
On February 24, before another Tuesday public meeting with the rest of the port commission, Albro sent The Stranger one last statement. "I opposed the lease, strove to prevent its approval, and attempted to require more robust public processes for any interim use at Terminal 5," he said. "I failed."
At that day's meeting, public commenters—out in much greater numbers than previous meetings—agreed, with one saying the port's attitude toward the Shell deal is "ruining all hope for a livable planet."This story has been updated since its original publication.