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City aims monkey wrench at homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet

Article by Joel Connelly published 9 March 2015 by

City aims monkey wrench at homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet

Seattle city officials on Monday tossed a carefully aimed monkey wrench into plans, approved last month by the Seattle Port Commission, to use the Seattle waterfront as base of operations for Shell Oil’s Arctic oil drilling fleet.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development will “review, investigate and determine” whether the port’s plan to play host to Shell — or, to be exact, Foss Maritime — is allowed under the current shoreline substantial development permit granted to Terminal 5.

The “review” could find that repairing, maintaining and converting ships used for drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea requires new and different permits, along with additional time-consuming environmental reviews. Green groups have been seeking a legal obstacle since the Port Commission rushed through the lease agreement last month.

“Any project of this apparent significance to our industrial lands must go through the appropriate review,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement.

“It’s important that the public and surrounding businesses are informed of all the possible impacts of this lease — both economic and environmental — and all that these impacts are sufficiently disclosed and evaluated.”

The impacts that worry environmental groups are more than 2,000 miles away for Seattle.

Shell is returning to the Arctic this summer, seeking to rescue an investment that has already cost the oil giant $5.8 billion in lease sales and equipment.

The company stumbled repeatedly in 2012: Its drilling ship the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground. A U.S. Coast Guard inspection of the vessel later found multiple violations, leading to eight felony convictions and $12.2 million in fines against a Shell subcontractor.

A second drilling vessel, the conical $450 million Kulluk, broke free from its tow lines while being towed across the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm. It ran aground on New Year’s Eve on an island near Kodiak and was so severely damaged it had to be towed to China and dismantled.

Ice covered for much of the year, the Chukchi Sea is home to a big walrus, seal and polar bear population.

It is the summer feeding ground for thousands of gray whales, which bear their young in Baja California (notably fabled Laguna San Ignacio) and swim north up the Pacific Coast each spring.  A few of the whales break off and visit inland waters of Puget Sound, using river estuaries as a food source.

The first visiting gray whale was spotted off Saratoga Passage over the weekend.

The Port of Seattle’s lease with Foss, which has towed and supplied Shell’s vessels, was quietly approved just as the Seattle-area environmental community was waking up to the prospect of Shell on the waterfront. The deal was greased and run through in a style reminiscent of the port’s “crony capitalism” of past history.

Although the lease has been signed, environmental groups have raised hell at Port Commission meetings. Ex-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn coauthored an op-ed article for The Seattle Times. Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien was getting up a letter for colleagues to sign, leaked (as always) to The Stranger.

The entrance of Mayor Murray gives firepower and aim to what has been a scatter shot effort.

“This is why I’m directing DPD to conduct a thorough review of the Terminal 5 proposal and determine if they anticipated activities at the terminal involving the Shell drilling fleet require new permits before it can proceed,” said Murray.

The port has promoted the Shell-Foss deal as a win-win situation. The port will reap millions of dollars, the project will support family-wage jobs and a tenant is found while Terminal 5 is refurbished to handle large ocean-going ships.

“While the immediate value of a lease to repair Arctic drilling equipment may appear to be high, we believe this agreement is shortsighted and ignores the long-term costs to our economy and environment,” said Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw.

A statement by the Mayor’s Office hints broadly that the city will find the need for new permits.

At present, the port’s shoreline substantial development permit designates Terminal 5 as a “cargo terminal” — the term for a facility in which goods are received, stored and shipped.

“But,” said the statement, “if the Arctic drilling fleet is actually moored and repaired at Terminal 5, there could be significant and adverse impacts on the surrounding environment,” said the statement. The DPD will be working with the Port of Seattle “to clarify all of the activities anticipated.”

The issue of climate change hangs over the Shell battle.

Sea ice in the Arctic, as the end of an unusually warm Alaska winter, is at a near-minimum and could break the previous record low ice pack figure for the end of winter, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported over the weekend.

“Having a record low winter minimum would tend to set us up for a low September extend because we’d be starting off on a bad footing,” Mark Serreze, the center’s director, told The Independent.

The summer Arctic ice pack has shrunk to record low levels in recent summers, in 2012 to the lowest minimum ever recorded in September.

The winter pack for this year is running especially low in the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea, a hopeful sign for Shell if not the planet.



Seattle mayor, council seek review of permit that allows Shell oil drilling fleet at port

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