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Environmental Groups Take On Port of Seattle Over Shell Oil Lease Agreement

Bellamy Pailthorp
Supporters of a new coalition opposed to basing Shell Oil's Arctic drilling fleet in Seattle held up a banner at their inaugeral press conference.

Environmentalists turned out in full force Wednesday to voice their opposition to a Port of Seattle agreement allowing Shell Oil to base its 26-ship Arctic drilling fleet in West Seattle.

A coalition of state and national groups is threatening to sue the Port over its agreement to lease the currently-vacant Terminal 5 to the oil company for up to four years.

Though commissioners say the deal could generate hundreds of jobs, coalition leaders say the port rushed through its approval process with little notice or public discussion.

'The Drilling Fleet That Has Everything Go Wrong'

The groups have sent a letter to the port commissioners, asking them to reconsider their decision and undertake a full environmental review before signing the lease.

 “We’re talking about Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet here — the drilling fleet that has had everything go wrong,” said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman.  

“When the Department of Interior investigated Shell," she added, "they chastised Shell for not maintaining good oversight over its contractors, including its maritime transportation and logistics contractors — the ones that would be here.”

Goldman says the Seattle-based fleet would include the Noble Discoverer, a drilling rig that had inoperable pollution control equipment and ran aground in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor in the summer of 2012. Its owner later pled guilty to eight felony offenses and paid over $12 million in fines and community service.

Opportunity For Jobs And Revenue

At its meeting this week, three of Seattle’s five port commissioners voted to go ahead with the deal.

The Port has argued state law doesn't require it to perform an environmental review before signing the lease. State law exempts leases from such reviews if they're for “essentially the same as the existing use.” The port says the proposed use is less intensive than the previous use, as a container terminal.  Shell has also previously based some of its Arctic fleet vessels at a shipyard in Seattle. Two oil tankers launched from Seattle in the summer of 2012.

In a statement, the Port said the opportunity with Shell could create hundreds of jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenues. Estimates range from $25 to $28 million.

Terminal 5 has been empty since this summer, when the port moved its cargo operations, with plans to modernize the 50-year-old facility.

The Port statement also said they respect the differences of opinion amongst community stakeholders and Commissioners, and will carefully review their letter and concerns.

A 'Secret, Back Room Deal'

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien joined the environmental coalition at their press conference. He said he had corresponded with three of the Port Commissioners to express his concerns.

“The process [of approving the lease] is almost as bad as what they’re actually trying to do,” O’Brien said.

“You know, making these secret back-room deals. The whole reason they do that is because if Shell came out six months ago and said, ‘We’re going to start negotiating with the Port on an oil facility here,’ we know exactly what the outcome would be. So they do this to avoid the process and try to get the work done,” O’Brien told news reporters.

In its letter, the coalition opposing the deal has asked the Port to respond by Feb. 9.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to