Ah, 2015.
Ah, 2015. Alex Garland

Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman knows three things for sure. One, no one really paid the Port of Seattle any attention until a Shell drilling rig rolled into town in 2015. Two, the immediate public backlash against the Port’s decision to allow the rig to dock at Terminal 5 elevated Felleman’s then-candidacy for the commission’s open seat. And three, the Port hopes to do better going forward.

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The Port of Seattle recently installed solar panels on a Fishermen’s Terminal net-shed down at Pier 69. The solar project points to a much broader effort from the Port, whose commission voted unanimously to implement an aggressive energy and sustainability directive late last month.

This latest motion outlines measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all Port operations, increase energy resilience toward carbon neutrality, and introduce a framework to estimate the environmental impact of its future projects. The motion is an update to the Port’s longstanding strategic plan, the Century Agenda.

“Solar panels at Fishermen's Terminal are a good start,” says Jesse Piedfort, director of the Sierra Club’s local affiliate. “I think the Port is beginning to take its role as an environmental steward more seriously. But there is absolutely more to do.”

Piedfort is pleased to see Ryan Calkins win a seat on the commission.

As a candidate, Calkins was very vocal about his commitment to sustainability, running against well-established incumbent John Creighton. And though it’s not even close to a complete flip, Calkins’ election victory may indicate a critical turning point for the Port’s lambasted environmental reputation, demonstrating promise in actualizing its new directive.

Felleman welcomes Calkins to the commission, saying the newcomer has a lot to contribute, but takes issue with his support of a SoDo arena. Urban sprawl, he explains, is an environmental issue and the protection of industrial lands (so as not to encroach elsewhere) is absolutely vital.

He wishes the public were better informed on the Port’s past and ongoing environmental efforts, which the entire commission has been supportive of throughout, and believes if media coverage of the Port was more balanced, the race for Position 1 might have been, at the very least, closer.

“The idea that the Port was at some sort of environmental deficit was just an assumption, no one was really paying attention, and I’m not saying we’re not deserving of our share of criticism,” he explains.

“But the fact that we even needed a different candidate based on this issue was really just a reflection of people not knowing what the commission does unless it steps in puddles.”

One such puddle occurred in 2015 when the Seattle chapter of the Sierra Club, joined by other local environmental groups including the Washington Environmental Council (WEC), Earthjustice, and the PugetSoundkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit against the Port of Seattle following the Shell fiasco, accusing the commission of violating state environmental law.

The environmental groups lost in court and ultimately withdrew their appeal when reports indicated Shell would no longer use Seattle as its homeport for Arctic drilling.

Commissioner Felleman, for his part, came in on the heels of it all. His candidacy was largely supported by his experience as a sustainability advocate and as a seasoned environmental consultant throughout the region. Felleman would represent the environmental voice at the table. And it worked. He won. This newest motion, which is also a push for greater transparency, marks the culmination of his two-year tenure at the Port.

Following his election, Felleman felt the commission was asking the wrong questions in how to respond to its widespread criticism. “The commission was feeling pretty beat up,” he says. “They were asking about appropriate levels of fossil fuel intensity when the real question was how to make a determination based on principle and public dialogue. That’s where I thought, let’s come up with a framework.”

Now, the Port has specific sustainability evaluation criteria to work with, developed in collaboration with and input from community stakeholders, including: the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the increase of energy resilience, and the projected impact on environmental and public health, on racial and social justice, on regional partnerships, and on local economic development. The Fishermen’s Terminal solar project is the first to be evaluated under this criterion.

“There are important things to consider other than dollars per carbon reduced,” says Felleman. “So can you justify it? Only a government agency can afford a long-term payback, so you have to ask whether [a given project] is the best use of money unless there are these other benefits, too.”

But in the midst of hurricanes, fires, and acidifying oceans, the climate crisis is in full swing with or without an environmental directive, environmentalists point out. News came out recently that the world’s carbon emissions are rising again after three years of remaining relatively flat and Piedfort wants to see some initiative from the Port.

“I’d like to see [the Port of Seattle] electrify the vehicles and equipment they use to serve both the airport and the seaport,” he says.

Piedfort uses California as an example. The state mandated that at least 80% of visiting cargo ships plug into shore power by 2020. Comparatively, only 30% of ships that come through Seattle do that right now. He also recommends that the Port’s drayage trucks be upgraded to cleaner engines and that the Port invest in ship-to-rail infrastructure to reduce the need for short-haul cargo trucks.

Nick Abraham, Communications and Accountability Manager at WEC, says that his organization is happy to see the Port of Seattle moving in a positive direction and credits Felleman for pushing its environmentally conscious agenda. But much like Piedfort, Abraham says there are structural and fundamental changes necessary: Less idling of vehicles, a greater shift toward dependence on aviation biofuels, and plugging in instead of bunkering, for example.

Felleman is well aware of these issues and has been taking steps to address them in the Port’s new motion.

“They’re our emissions, but we’re trying to make it possible for cruise ships to plug in when they’re at the dock so they aren’t just running their monster engines,” he says. “As the landlord, we’re trying to make it easier for the tenant to be green.”

The Port’s goal is to cut its port-controlled emissions and port-indirect emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Similarly, port-influenced emissions will be cut 50 percent below 2007 levels by 2030. The new directive also states that three new positions will be added at the Port to focus solely on its environmental efforts. The Port of Seattle’s commission works on a part-time basis.

Felleman adds that, for months now, the Port has tried to update its trucks to models made after 2007, but has experienced setbacks due to some of the truck drivers, many of whom operate independently, not being able to afford new trucks. Felleman says the Port is working to introduce a low-income loan program to address this issue, and to electrify the luggage carts at the airport and cargo-handling equipment down at the water.

But these are just statements of intent. What about accountability?

“Let’s say we get to our half way report and we’re miserably missing our goal,” answers Felleman. “When the next big project comes down in the second half and it costs more money but means significant greenhouse gas reduction, we can now justify that.”

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