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Conservation Groups File Lawsuit Challenging the Port of Seattle’s Decision to Make Seattle a Homeport for Shell’s Arctic Drilling Fleet

Coalition challenges the Port’s circumvention of public process and environmental laws in leasing Terminal 5
The Polar Pioneer is one of Shell Oil's drill rigs that may be coming to Seattle.

The Polar Pioneer is one of Shell Oil's drill rigs that may be coming to Seattle.

Tor Even Mathisen / Flickr
March 2, 2015
Seattle, WA —

A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today against the Port of Seattle and the Port Commissioners, challenging the Port’s entry into a lease with Foss Maritime to open Terminal 5 to Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet without public proceedings or environmental review.

The lawsuit charges that the lease will change the use of Terminal 5 by converting it into a homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, which will need extensive maintenance and repairs after being battered in the Arctic conditions. The lease would allow Shell’s drill ships to be housed at the Port, including the Noble Discoverer which was the subject of 8 felony convictions and over $12 million in fines and community service last December, including for discharging oil-contaminated water in violation of water pollution laws. The lawsuit charges that the Port has violated its long-range plans and its shoreline permit, which designate Terminal 5 as a cargo terminal, not a homeport and that it needed to conduct a public review of the environmental and community impacts of making this change. 

Earthjustice filed the challenge in King County Superior Court on behalf of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, The Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, and Seattle Audubon Society. The coalition asks the court to vacate the lease because the Port violated the State Environmental Policy Act, its own rules, and the Shoreline Management Act.

“By making a secret deal to house Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet in Seattle, the Port shut out the public and subverted laws that are designed to foster an informed public assessment of controversial proposals like this one,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman. “Shell’s race to drill in the Arctic has been dirty business and now battered vessels that have leaked oily water are being welcomed into our city.”

The Port conducted the lease negotiations in secret and only revealed the plans to the public after it was a done deal.  It circumvented environmental laws and open debate over the use of Terminal 5 by claiming the use would not change from its use as a container terminal over the past several decades.

"The Port Commission not only broke the law, they violated the public trust,” said Jesse Piedfort, executive committee chair for Sierra Club – Seattle. “This isn’t a run of the mill lease—it has enormous environmental impacts which affect our backyard, Alaska and our world. By subverting the public process and negotiating in secret, the Port ignored requirements for environmental review and deprived the public of the opportunity to debate this lease."

Citing both the environmental impacts of leaking oil and repairing damaged vessels and lack of public process, the groups asked the Port Commissioners to block the lease via a letter dated January 28, 2015. The letter urged the Port to find a new tenant that creates high-quality, sustainable jobs that reflect the community’s values, further specifying the need for a full vetting and public process. The lawsuit focuses on those values and the need to keep the Port as a leader in sustainability.

“The Port of Seattle is putting their stated goal of being a 'Green Gateway' and an environmental leader at risk,” said Washington Environmental Council President Becky Kelley. “Hosting this fleet with a record of discharging oil-contaminated water, flies in the face of their environmental goals and ours.”

“Protecting the health of our waterways begins with transparency in significant decisions made by our public officials,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “Unfortunately the Port missed this mark by a huge margin while ignoring its own stated goals of sustainability. The Commission’s failure to inform the public about this back room deal amounts to a breach of trust, leaving many unanswered questions about pending industrial activities that put our local waters at risk.”

“We encourage the Port of Seattle to rescind this lease without delay,” said Susan North, conservation manager for Seattle Audubon. “Many migratory and breeding bird species that are already in decline call our waters home and are at great risk from oil and other pollutants. We are extremely concerned about the potential for oil and chemical pollution of the Salish Sea due to transit, transport, berthing, and maintenance of weathered, damaged, and contaminated oil industry vessels and equipment in our waters.”

Related background

Shell Oil intends to begin exploration, upon approval of a lease sale and drilling plans, as early as this Spring. According to the Obama Administration’s final supplemental environmental impact statement on the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, released February 12, 2015, there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the Chukchi Sea is developed, and there is no way to clean up or contain such spills. A decision on whether the Administration will end or affirm the Chukchi Sea oil leases for Alaska is expected in late March.

Shell’s disastrous 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling and transport operations demonstrate that even technically advanced and well-resourced companies are no match for Arctic conditions. The company was investigated and fined after multiple missteps and close calls during its efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012. And the Department of Interior conducted a review of Shell’s Arctic drilling operations in which it severely criticized Shell for failing to maintain effective oversight of its contractors. In December 2014, one such contractor, Noble Drilling (US) LLC, pled guilty to eight felony charges and paid over $12 million in fines and community service. Noble operates the Noble Discoverer, one of the two drill ships in Shell’s Arctic fleet. The other drill ship, the Polar Pioneer, is operated by Transocean, which paid more than $1.4 billion in criminal and civil fines for its role in the 2010 Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both drill ships could come to the Port of Seattle under the terms of the lease with Foss Maritime Company.

Read the complaint.


Betsy Lopez-Wagner, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2159

Jesse Piedfort, The Sierra Club, (206) 947-6529

Susan North, Seattle Audubon Society, (206) 523-8243, ext. 38

Amelia Apfel, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, (206) 297-7002

Kerry McHugh, Washington Environmental Council, (206) 631-2605