An aerial shot of the Kulluk, a Shell oil drilling that had to be evacuated after being grounded in 2012.
  • US Coast Guard
  • An aerial shot of the Kulluk, a Shell oil drilling rig that had to be evacuated after being grounded in 2012.

The Port of Seattle will very likely pursue a two-year subletting relationship* with Shell's Arctic oil drilling vessels. Any objections?

Uh, yep.

On Tuesday, the Port of Seattle Commission held its first public comment session on the proposal, which also allowed port commissioners themselves to express opinions on the idea—and express opinions they did. Almost unanimously, commissioners gave impassioned monologues against the idea of tacitly supporting Arctic drilling. Commissioner Courtney Gregoire (the former Governor Gregoire's daughter), delivered one of the most forceful speeches. "To those of you who will say, 'you have no authority over drilling in the Arctic,' I just don't accept that as a public agency," she said.

But the commission then went ahead and OK'd the project anyway.

Not that the project needed the commission's approval. The elected officials don't have to sign off on sub-leases like this one. However, the commission does have the power to give themselves the power to approve or deny short-term leases. That's the motion that Commissioner Tom Albro brought to the table at the end of a three-hour meeting, in which commissioners heard from stevedores, Foss (the primary leasee that would be sub-leasing to Shell), various maritime industry leaders, and a handful of environmental activists. If the commission wanted to, it could have stalled the decision that day. But the motion wasn't even seconded.

What happened? Here's the deal: The port's been in a $22 million hole since last fall, after it closed Terminal 5 for upgrades and the terminal's last leasee left. According to seaport executive Linda Styrk, leasing the terminal for mooring ships would create $25 million to $28 million in revenue, additionally creating hundreds of administrative and mariner jobs. That's where Shell figures in. Giving Shell's Arctic oil drilling vessels a place to live in the off-season is a potentially lucrative venture.

We also know that the Port is responsible for contributing up to $300 million to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which would be paid from selling bonds (bonds then repaid by property taxes). The port’s already signed off on the sale of two bonds for the tunnel, together totaling $231 million. In other words, it needs more money. In a lot of different ways.

And Styrk made the case for moving forward with the Foss-Shell deal as fast as possible. “This is the only tangible financial prospect right now,” she said.

But this was the first time that the public was even hearing the full details of a deal that was suddenly being sold as do-or-die. Part of the reason why likely has to do with the nondisclosure agreement—a verbal one—between the port and Foss Maritime that kept deliberations about the Shell oil drilling vessels mostly secret until last week.

Commissioner Gregoire pointed out that she had received 150 e-mails in 24 hours after the news broke in the Seattle Times. “What I don’t like is that today is the first briefing that we have in public,” she said. “I want there to to be full public ability to actually provide us input.”

“It’s a cop-out for us to say we’ll wash our hands clean, this is a federal issue,” added Commissioner John Creighton. “With these [climate change] issues globally, we can’t just do business as usual.” At the same time, he argued that passing up the lease would be a bad idea, and that it wouldn't make a difference to Arctic drilling one way or the other.

Not exactly in line with the port's "where a sustainable world is headed" slogan.

The commission totally did do business as usual with this one, all the while talking about how hard it was. How'd they feel about it? Commissioner Stephanie Bowman explained that it's not like some commissioners are pro-environment and others aren't, so don't even try to play it like that.

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“This is the toughest decision that we’ve had to make, and we’re not really making a decision,” Commissioner Bowman said. "We're moving forward with the status quo. I'm not really willing to move forward with the status quo after this point."

Translation: She feels bad. She's not sticking with the status quo any longer (and will be supporting a vague suggestion for new, eco-friendly guidelines for future business opportunities). Except when it comes to the Shell deal. For this one, she'll be sticking with the status quo.

*February 24, 2015: We've since learned that it would be more accurate to describe Shell's relationship to Foss as a customer, not a sub-lessee.