In late February, Washington Post science reporter Chris Mooney seized on a new frontier in the debate over how to best confront global warming. President Barack Obama had just vetoed the latest Keystone XL pipeline bill, and Mooney said the president's move was in sync with environmentalists' latest, confrontational supply-side argument against the Keystone XL project and others like it. Environmentalists are making the case, Mooney wrote, that in order to prevent dangerous climate change, some fossil fuels would simply have to stay in the ground. He added: "You may not agree with it, but you have to reckon with it. The president certainly has."
But what about Governor Jay Inslee, perhaps the country's most vocal governor on addressing climate change? How does he reckon with the "keep it in the ground" movement? A recent request by The Stranger for Inslee's staff e-mails shows that around the same time this debate was happening, an issue similar to Keystone started to arise in Washington State: the Port of Seattle's role in supporting Shell's Arctic drilling endeavors this summer.
The "keep it in the ground" case against Arctic drilling rests on science published in the journal Nature earlier this year. Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, two researchers at University College London, used economic models to determine which fossil-fuel reserves should be considered "unburnable" in order to avoid hitting a two degree Celsius global warming safety limit. If the world is serious about sticking to that limit, all Arctic oil and gas should stay unburned, Ekins and McGlade concluded.
The study reframed the debate over Shell's latest attempt at Arctic drilling—an attempt that the Port of Seattle would be tacitly supporting by allowing Shell's fleet to moor at Terminal 5 in the drilling off-season. (The first rig in Shell's fleet, a drilling platform called the Polar Pioneer, is expected to arrive in Seattle sometime in the next month.)
Port of Seattle staffers had reached out to state officials as early as January 8—five days before a public meeting about the Shell deal—to explain the port's rationale for supporting a proposed lease that would help Shell resupply and refurbish its drilling fleet by docking in Puget Sound. In response, Inslee staffers exchanged e-mails on how to best address the looming controversy. Matt Steuerwalt, Inslee's executive director of policy, wrote that he saw no reason for the governor's office to comment, though when pressed, he also wrote: "Governor is a strong supporter of the maritime industry; Foss [which would be subleasing port space to Shell under the agreement] is a terrific local company; the port is an economic engine; if the local maritime leaders see this as a good way to grow the industry that's great."
Later that afternoon, Inslee's chief of staff, Joby Shimomura, reined in Steuerwalt's comments: "Hold the line, please. Thought we were going to be more neutral or not getting into this. This is a local decision that the Port of Seattle is making."
A month after those e-mails, the port signed the lease. It was then that the port's PR headache began in earnest, with protesters—angry at the minimal public notice about this decision—showing up to port commission meetings in force.
On February 11, KC Golden, senior policy adviser at Climate Solutions, reached out to Keith Phillips, Inslee's special assistant on climate and energy, highlighting the Nature study. A day later, Phillips and David Postman, Inslee's executive director of communications, exchanged thoughts. "KC's point about the disconnect between what the science says we can burn safely and what the Artic oil would bring is valid," Phillips wrote in an email. "If the Gov is concerned, and he wants to make that known, the issue is valid. However, he has not taken on the oil/climate issues that directly."
Phillips also acknowledged that any opinions the governor did express would put pressure on the port.
But the governor's office chose to remain silent instead, declining to add Inslee's opinion or the weight of his office to public pressure that was building against the port's move. A week later, The Stranger reached out to Inslee for comment on the apparent disconnect between his climate-change activism and what the science said about Arctic drilling. "Our team has been monitoring the discussion but our office doesn't have any comment," Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith wrote back.
In an interview, Postman explained that after February 12, staff sat down with the governor and briefed him on some of the points of their discussion. After that, he said, the governor started taking a stronger position on the subject—stronger than staff anticipated. As examples, Postman cited a letter Inslee sent to the Department of the Interior more than a month later, asking that the DOI hold off on any future Arctic leases, as well as the governor's March 17 statement that public concerns about the port's process were legitimate.
The governor's statements about the port decision came "about as close as you could come [to objecting] to that process," Postman said.
But, in fact, the governor did not issue a public objection.
In his letter to the DOI, the governor wrote that the DOI's plans for future lease sales "stand in conflict with the important federal and [state] efforts to shift to cleaner forms of energy and reduce the pollution that is driving climate change." He came close to acknowledging "keep it in the ground." Still, the governor didn't ask the DOI to rescind the current leases in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea—leases Shell will be exploring this summer—nor did he ask the port commissioners to rescind their lease of port space to Shell.
Phillips, Inslee's climate adviser, said that Inslee's big focus is on finding more demand-side solutions to climate change. (The state's initial silence and the governor's subsequent statements didn't mean the governor was "soft" on climate, Postman added.) But the governor, Phillips said, also has to avoid prejudicing decisions he'll face on fossil-fuel proposals down the road.
"We keep telling him, you're focused on the Carbon Accountability Act, clean fuel standards, coal [electricity] standards," Phillips said. "He's got an 18-point agenda we're trying to advance... Where does he spend his political capital? He wants to fight 'em all, and what he's constantly doing is: 'Big guy, focus.'"