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Hundreds of kayaktivists swarm Shell Oil's drilling rig Polar Pioneer, as it arrives in Elliot Bay at the Port of Seattle on May 15, 2015.
Feature Story

The Battle for Seattle

Seattleites cry “Shell No!” as Shell Oil tries to set up shop in the Emerald City for its Arctic drilling fleet.
Joshua Trujillo /

Early on a crisp Saturday morning in May, hundreds of people in kayaks, canoes and other vessels gather along the shore near downtown Seattle and let out a war whoop: “Shell No!”

Then, banging their paddles in chorus, the self-described “kayaktivists” launch into Puget Sound’s chilly waters and head toward the Polar Pioneer, a massive drilling rig owned by Shell Oil.

It’s bad enough that the rig is even there, but over the past few months it’s become apparent that Shell received permission to dock the rig through secretive negotiations with the Seattle Port Commission. On top of that, President Obama has just announced that he is letting Shell drill in Arctic waters this summer.

Later that week, Seattleite Jerry Joyce tells me that, though the event was billed as “family friendly,” he could tell that the kayaktivists were furious.

Female bearded seals give birth to a single pup on the Arctic ice in shallow waters, where the pup typically dives in only hours after its birth. An oil spill could contaminate and decimate the seals' food sources, such as arctic cod and octopus.
Ondrej Prosicky / Shutterstock
Female bearded seals give birth to a single pup on the Arctic ice in shallow waters, where the pup typically dives in only hours after its birth. An oil spill could contaminate and decimate the seals' food sources. See photos of the Arctic »>

seals were tagged with satellite transmitters tracking their movements.
Yellow areas are
leased for oil and gas development.
The Seals of The Arctic.
Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game

“The port is taxpayer subsidized,” he explains. “That means that what they do is in our name, and the fact that the port is supporting Arctic drilling is a real issue because it’s making me responsible for whatever happens up there.”

Joyce knows about high-risk situations on the high seas.

He grew up listening to maritime stories told by his father, a member of the Merchant Marine. And, as a marine biologist, Joyce has spent countless hours on dozens of ships conducting research on marine mammals in the Arctic and Antarctic.

“In the Arctic, the slightest mishap becomes a major event,” says Joyce, who spent two seasons living on the sea ice just off the North Slope in Alaska, where he experienced firsthand the harsh and unforgiving conditions of the area, like frigid and unpredictable weather. One thing he learned well:

“You always have to be very aware of your own survival.”


Shortly after the news about the port’s lease got out, the city sprung into action. Within 24 hours, port commissioners received a flood of emails from Seattleites furious about the decision. In response, the port held a public meeting a few days later to discuss the proposal. Despite the short notice, remote Sea-Tac airport location and ill-suited timing, dozens of people showed up to comment on the proposal.

What You Need To Know

“We had about six days of notice when they were doing almost six months of negotiations,” says Zarna Joshi, an organizer with Rising Tide Seattle who attended the meeting. “The way they conducted themselves during what should be a public process is just utterly corrupt.”

Joshi, like many others, believes that, given the deal’s potential environmental and economic impacts to the city, the public should have had more opportunity to comment on the lease. Despite the outcry, only one port commissioner raised a motion to stall the deal. No one seconded it.

The deal was done, but the battle for Seattle was just beginning.

After the lease was signed, Earthjustice, along with several environmental groups and former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, sent a letter to the port’s commissioners urging them to reconsider its decision to lease Terminal 5 to Shell. Local news outlets issued similar calls.

The commissioners ignored the letter. In response, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and Seattle Audubon Society, sued the port for circumventing the public process and violating state environmental laws.

“The port commissioners subverted laws to make this secretive deal,” says Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman. “They breached the public’s trust and put Puget Sound waters at risk.” (Read an extended Q&A with Goldman.)

Less than a week later, Seattle mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle city council directed the city planning department to investigate the port’s actions, citing similar concerns.


Seattle is very much a tale of two cities. Nicknamed the “Emerald City,” it ranks high on sustainability issues like recycling and providing plenty of wild, green spaces. But Seattle also has deep roots in the maritime industry, starting in the late 19th century by serving as the gateway to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Critics of the Shell lease argue that the two interests need not be mutually exclusive, as long as everyone follows the rules.

“Seattle is a port city, so it’s realistic to expect a lot of industry here,” says Joyce. “But you need to do it in the right way so that urbanization and industrialization don’t negatively impact the environment.”

What You Need To Know

Lease opponents believe the port broke the law by allowing Shell to use one of its terminals in a way that’s fundamentally different from its longstanding use.

Historically, Terminal 5 has been used as a container terminal—where ships dock to transfer goods. Under the new lease, Shell is allowed to dock its battered and leaky Arctic ships for repairs—a practice that could release oil and other toxic pollutants into Puget Sound.

“Claiming that this terminal will continue to be used as a container terminal is actually kind of laughable, if it weren’t so inappropriate,” says Susan North, a conservation manager for Audubon Seattle.

Her group is primarily concerned about the potential local impacts to wildlife and the habitat of Puget Sound, a complex marine estuary that supports an abundance of marine life, like endangered salmon species and the area’s famous orca whales. Approximately 172 bird species are dependent on Puget Sound, which serves as a crowded stop along the Pacific Flyway between the Arctic tundra and South American wetlands.

Audubon member Jerry Joyce scans for birds on Seattle’s waters.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
Seattle resident and Audubon member Jerry Joyce scans for birds on Puget Sound.

“This is the home for the birds in the Arctic, and now Shell wants to make it their home,” says Joyce, who volunteers hundreds of hours a year at Audubon. “But the birds were here first.”

Puget Sound isn’t exactly a pristine environment, thanks to ongoing pollution issues like stormwater runoff, industrial discharges and oil spills. But over the past decade, local groups like the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance have spent countless hours and millions of dollars cleaning up its ecosystem and conducting regular patrols to monitor for pollution.

During one of these boat patrols, the Soundkeeper Alliance’s executive director Chris Wilke explains that it’s not just about preserving an environment for preservation’s sake—the health of the water also has a direct effect on the region’s economy. Soundkeeper’s members, for example, engage on the waterways in many different ways, from paddle boating and kayaking to swimming, fishing and growing shellfish.


Managing Attorney Patti Goldman speaks with Earthjustice client and Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke at Puget Sound on April 28, 2015. The icebreaker ship Aiviq (background) is part of Shell's Arctic drilling fleet.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
Managing Attorney Patti Goldman speaks with Earthjustice client and Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke at Puget Sound on April 28, 2015. The icebreaker ship Aiviq (background) is part of Shell's Arctic drilling fleet.

Even if Shell is the perfect tenant and there are no negative impacts to the local environment—an unlikely scenario given the company’s extensive eco-crime rap sheet—many Seattleites feel it’s hypocritical for a supposedly “green city” to enable an environmentally destructive practice like Arctic drilling by serving as Shell’s home base during its drilling off-season.

The Interior Department estimates there is a 75 percent risk of one or more large oil spills if all of the oil drilling leases are developed in the Arctic. In addition, Shell’s Arctic drilling project is bigger, dirtier and louder than any of its previous plans, calling for more sound disturbances and harassment of whales and seals, more water and air pollution, and more vessels and helicopters.

Despite these impacts, the government has approved Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea, which could begin as early as July. (Earthjustice is challenging the government’s decision.) If a spill occurred, fossil fuel companies would largely be without backup—the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away. And, both the National Academy of Science and industry experts have determined that no current cleanup methods can remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters, especially in the presence of broken ice. Even in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which occurred in the relatively accessible and placid Gulf of Mexico, total oil spill recovery was dismally low.

What You Need To Know

Even if a spill doesn’t occur, opening up the Arctic’s vast oil reserves puts the planet on the fast track to environmental calamity. According to a recent study in Nature, we must leave all Arctic oil and gas in the ground if we are to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Many people who attended the rallies and port commission meetings cited the Nature article as a major factor in their decision to oppose the lease.

“Seattle’s people have always opposed Arctic drilling, but having this visual symbol of drilling right in our backyard is really kind of a mixed blessing in that it really repulsed people and jolted them into action,” Seattle city council member Mike O’Brien told me during a rally in March.

Seattle residents protest on May 18, 2015, Shell Oil’s plans to make the Port of Seattle the home port for its Arctic drilling fleet.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
Seattle residents protest on May 18, 2015, Shell Oil’s plans to make the Port of Seattle the home port for its Arctic drilling fleet.

But that’s not all they oppose. During the March rally, as the sun slowly pierced the morning clouds, more than a thousand people gathered to speak out not only against Shell, but against all fossil fuel projects in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past few years, the area has become ground zero for environmentally destructive projects like coal exports, crude by rail and oil shipping.

The range of participants were as varied as the issues they spoke passionately about: from urban youth who live in communities with disproportionately high asthma rates to islanders displaced by rising sea levels, to a group of women elders known as the Raging Grannies who use song and humor to promote global peace, justice, and social and economic equality. Some focused on the immediate issue of the Shell lease, while others spoke more broadly about such concerns as fair use, corporate power and local control.

“Complacency equals consent,” Sarra Tekola, a University of Washington student told the crowd. “And if you aren’t standing up against Shell when they’re here in our backyard, then you are also guilty.”


On May 4, after weeks of protests and outcry over the port’s decision, Seattle mayor Ed Murray announced that the city had found that the Port of Seattle violated its 20-year-old shoreline permit issued by the city and the port could not serve as the homeport for Shell without a new permit. Murray urged the port to reconsider whether leasing to Shell is really in the city’s best interests.

“This is an opportunity for the port and all of us to make a bold statement about how oil companies contribute to climate change, oil spills and other environmental disasters—and reject this short-term lease,” said Murray.

At the end of a nearly six-hour meeting, the port voted to appeal the city findings, and Foss filed an appeal as well. (Earthjustice is seeking to defend the city’s findings.) The port also asked Foss and Shell to delay using Terminal 5 for the drill rigs until the legal issues are sorted out, but both companies refused.

The entire population of the spectacled eider gathers at a single island just south of the Arctic's Chukchi Sea. Many of them molt in a bay close to the proposed Arctic Ocean drilling site.
Laura L. Whitehouse / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The entire population of the spectacled eider gathers at a single island just south of the Arctic's Chukchi Sea. Many of them molt in a bay close to the proposed Arctic Ocean drilling site.

Days later, the Polar Pioneer came to Seattle in defiance of the port’s request. The city conducted an inspection the next day and issued a notice of violation, which directs the Polar Pioneer and the icebreaker tug Aiviq to leave or obtain a legal permit by June 4. If Foss and Shell flout the directive, the city can seek an injunction and penalties that begin at $150 per day and then increase to $500 per day, mere pocket change for a company that has so far invested about $7 billion searching for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

“I think it’s typical of Big Oil,” says Joyce. “They have a lot of muscle and they flex it. They’re used to getting their way.”

But if Shell doesn’t get its way, it’s fully prepared to cut ties with Seattle and move on to the next port, possibly in nearby Tacoma or farther north to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. First though, it will need to get the Polar Pioneer out of Seattle, which may prove trickier than navigating an ice floe. Though previous demonstrations have been peaceful, many kayaktivists have vowed to block the Pioneer if it tries to leave Seattle’s waters and head for the Arctic. [Ed. Note: The Polar Pioneer left Seattle for Alaska's waters on June 15.]

Even if it does escape Seattle, Shell still faces a thicket of legal hurdles, including obtaining air and marine-animal protection permits. Given that Shell is the last U.S. oil company to try and drill in the Arctic, what happens in Seattle will help determine whether the U.S. will remain chained to fossil fuels or forge ahead to a clean energy future.

“I have a granddaughter, and I want her to be able to live a reasonable life and not turn into a climate refugee,” says Joyce. “What happens to the Arctic matters to us all.”  

The Fight Is Not Over Yet.

We must end all drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Shell Oil's decision to abandon its Arctic Ocean drilling program—for now—shows that Arctic Ocean oil drilling should be a thing of the past. It’s time to invest in a future of clean, renewable energy.

Earthjustice has been in court for decades fighting risky drilling in the region. And with your help, we will achieve long-term Arctic protections. Take action today