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Judge: Suit against Shell’s Arctic-drilling ‘homeport’ in Seattle can go ahead

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 19.49.45Article by Joel Connelly published 20 March 2015 by seattlepi.com

Judge: Suit against Shell’s Arctic-drilling ‘homeport’ in Seattle can go ahead

Critics are on solid legal ground in a legal challenge to the location of a “homeport” for Shell Oil’s Arctic-drilling fleet at the Seattle waterfront, a King County Superior Court judge ruled Friday.

The ruling by Judge Mariane Spearman allows a suit against the Port of Seattle, brought by four environmental groups, to go ahead.

The judge backed up foes’ argument that proposed uses of Terminal 5 go far beyond the “cargo terminal” allowed under the current shoreline development permit that the port has with the city of Seattle.

The judge quoted from a Port of Seattle staff document. It said Terminal 5 will be used for “vessel birthing, mooring and provisioning” of ships that will set out to drill this summer in the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska.

“The permitted uses under terms of the (city) lease seem to contradict expected uses outlined in the Port of Seattle’s briefing memo,” Spearman said.

“These activities appear to be qualitatively different than Eagle Marine Services’ previous use of Terminal 5 as a marine-container terminal,” she added.

The legal skirmishing is backdrop to a major national environmental battle.

Shell owns leases in the Chukchi Sea for which it paid $2.1 billion. The oil giant has cut back exploration elsewhere in the world, but wants to resume exploration in a shallow body of oil that could yield billions of barrels of oil.

Shell experienced a fiasco when it tried to drill three years ago. It concluded when the drilling ship Kulluk, retrofitted at $450 million cost, broke lose from its tow lines in a Gulf of Alaska storm and was wrecked on an island near Kodiak.

The Chukchi Sea is one of the world’s great ocean ecosystems. It supports an estimated 2,000 polar bears, recently classified endangered due to their shrinking Arctic ice pack habitat. The sea is feeding ground for the gray whales that migrate through Northwest waters each spring.

The Obama administration seems inclined to allow Arctic drilling, although it has put large swaths of the Chukchi Sea off limits to Arctic exploration.

The environmentalists’ legal goal is to force additional environmental studies that will keep Shell off the Seattle waterfront. The port’s lease is with Foss Maritime, which supplies, maintains and repairs Shell’s ships.

“We hope, with this ruling, that the port moves quickly — it has dragged its feet until now — to bring a resolution of this case,” Patti Goldman, counsel for Earthjustice, which represents four major green groups that sued, said in an interview.

The Port of Seattle said it is still reviewing Judge Spearman’s ruling.

Ex-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, an outspoken opponent, applauded the Spearman decision to let the case go ahead.

“It’s great that we are going to actually look at this,” McGinn said. “The port has done everything in its power to keep details of this decision secret from the public.”

The port, in its legal filing, argued that environmental groups were pursuing political objectives in a court of law.

“Holding an elected body accountable for their violation of the public trust and the laws they are sworn to uphold isn’t playing politics, it is stopping elected officials from circumventing the law,” Goldman said in a statement. “In the courtroom it’s not about politics, it’s about the law.”

The ruling by Judge Spearman will likely bear on another possible challenge to Shell.

Mayor Ed Murray has asked the city’s Planning and Development Department to review and investigate whether plans to berth Shell at the waterfront go beyond the “cargo terminal” permit granted by the city.

In years past, Shell’s drilling fleet has needed extensive repairs, maintenance and conversions after returning from drilling.

If it is determined that a new permit is needed for the Shell “homeport,” what the city calls “additional environmental review” would be required. Such review would take time. Shell is on a fast track to get back to the Arctic.

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