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How do you stop a 36,500-ton floating oil rig? With a court order, perhaps.
But, as Seattle city and port officials discovered, along with a hearty flotilla of protesting kayakers, it's best to steer clear of the 400-foot-long, semi-submerged platform when it's lumbering along at glacial speed. Once the Royal Dutch Shell rig gets to wherever it wants to go, then send in the attorneys.
Officials and environmental activists did just that, before and after the Transocean Polar Pioneer arrived at the Port of Seattle's Pier 5 this week, its towering derrick and yellow, eight-legged platform a jarring image against the Emerald City's background of blue waters, green forests and snow-capped Olympic Mountains.
To some, the arrival was an economic bump. To others, such as 66-year-old activist Martin Adams, the 307-foot-tall rig represented a corporate obscene gesture.
"Shell is giving us the middle finger by ignoring what the city has said and what all of us are saying," Adams told the SeattleTimes.
Protesters from a coalition called Shell No!, aka #PaddleInSeattle, along with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, had fought to keep the rig from becoming the first of several dozen craft from Shell's navy scheduled to load cargo and supplies for the company's summer Arctic exploratory drilling campaign. Shell seeks to tap into some of the estimated 15 billion barrels of oil beneath the Chukchi Sea.
But Murray decided Shell and its local contractor Foss Maritime — which has a $13 million, two-year lease with the Port of Seattle — did not have the proper permits to equip Shell's fleet. Several groups also filed court complaints alleging Shell could not use the pier for home porting because Pier 5 was a designated container terminal.
"It's time to turn the page," said Murray, "Things like oil trains, and coal trains, and oil-drilling rigs are the past. It's time to focus on the economy of the future."
Public opposition helped convince port commissioners to finally back down and ask Foss and Shell to at least delay the rig's arrival. The lease had become "an increasing distraction" for the port, one commissioner complained.
But Shell, the world's fourth-largest corporation in terms of revenue, saw no reason to alter its schedule. And Foss stood its ground, arguing in a statement that the mayor had given "a small but vocal group the ability to jeopardize the commercial relationships between our local maritime businesses and the Port of Seattle."
Besides millions in lease revenue, the port and Seattle region would benefit from hundreds of new jobs, Foss argued. The company had already hired more than 400 workers and Shell was spending about $600,000 a day to lease the Polar Pioneer as part of its $6 billion exploration program.
Foss also filed a court appeal of the city's permit ruling and declared its port contract valid. Paul Stevens, Foss CEO, indicated if the appeal fails, the company might appeal that, too. "We are going to proceed," he said. "These rigs and our operation will be in and out of here before there is any conclusion on the appeal process."
Along with carbon effects on the climate and the push to focus on green energy rather than fossil fuel exploration, opponents think Shell's drilling plans — which got tentative approval from the Obama administration this week — is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.
"The 2015 exploration plan doubles the risk of an oil spill," Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, said after the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) conditionally approved Shell's proposal. Though the multinational is likely to strike oil beneath the icy Chukchi, it would still need federal approval to begin processing it, costing billions, and likely taking years to develop. The Society contends that the new plan provides even fewer safeguards than Shell had in place three years ago when its Arctic drilling was marred by accidents and led to a federal felony guilty plea by one of Shell's contractors.
Shell drilled two offshore Arctic wells in 2012 but was halted by the federal government after a spill-containment device failed to pass tests. One of its drill rigs, the Kulluk, broke free from a towline and wound up beached on an Alaska island. And one of Shell's contractors, Noble Drilling, was later charged and pled guilty to eight felonies including keeping false record on how its oil was handled by the Noble Discoverer drill ship, which is currently docked at the Port of Everett, north of Seattle.
Noble admitted to making false entries and failing to record its collection, transfer, storage, and disposal of oil in the Noble Discoverer's and the Kulluk's oil record books. Last December, the company agreed to pay $12.2 million in fines.
Related: Shell plans to drill in the Arctic this summer and it's already failed a Coast Guard inspection
Shell's latest plan calls for six exploratory wells in the Chukchi near Wainwright, Alaska. Wainwright's mayor, John Hopson, made the trip to Seattle to remind port commissioners the pristine Arctic wasn't "just a place of polar bears, it's a home, my home," and a spill could devastate it.
BOEM, in its review of Shell's plans, couldn't guarantee that wouldn't happen, finding that, despite promised safety measures, there was still a 75 percent chance of a spill exceeding 1,000 barrels during the coming decades. "Two large spills of crude, condensate, or refined oil," states BOAM, "are assumed to occur during the Development and Production phases," estimated to last more than 60 years.
President Obama said this week he felt strong safeguards have been taken to prevent a spill by Shell.
Greenpeace spokesperson Travis Nichols disagreed.
"If, as the president says, Shell has learned from its mistakes, why did it fail its first Coast Guard inspection last month? Why haven't we seen the results of the third party audits Obama's own administration asked for after the 2012 fiasco?" he told VICE News. "There are very easy ways to prove Shell has learned something from its mistakes, but no one in the Obama administration is holding the company accountable."
Kayakers greeted the Polar Pioneer as it began docking Thursday, but were quickly surrounded by police and Homeland Security craft. They managed to unfurl a banner reading "Arctic Drilling = Climate Change." But there would be no climbing its derrick, as six Greenpeace members did in April, as the rig was making its way across the Pacific.
A Saturday demonstration, however, is expected to draw 1,000 or more kayakers and small boaters. On Monday, Shell No! is planning a "mass direct action" around the rig. Protesters think — in the words of Cynthia Linet, of the singing group Seattle Raging Grannies, who serenaded the port commission — "It's going to be the start of a long, hot summer in Seattle."
_Follow Rick Anderson on Twitter: _@rosebd