Shell and high water: the climate battle of Seattle
Originally published May 7, 2015 at 6:17 pm Updated May 7, 2015 at 6:18 pm
Shell’s oil-drilling rig destined for the Port of Seattle sitting in the waters off Port Angeles on May 4 (Mark Harrison/The Seattle Times)
Arctic drilling is a threat to the environment, and Seattle needs to stand up for the future.
By K.C. Golden
Special to The Times
IF you had to pick a logo for the campaign to wreak climate havoc, you could hardly do better than Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the “Polar Pioneer.” Climate denial has reached its fullest expression when the melting of the Arctic ice cap is greeted as a signal to drill for more oil where the ice used to be.
This monument to hubris is on its way to Seattle’s waterfront, where Shell hopes to stage its Arctic drilling operations. It will loom large on the Emerald City’s horizon, posing a stark contrast to Seattle icons like Mount Rainier and the Space Needle. A battle begins.
As a recent study in the academic journal Nature documented, Arctic oil must be considered “unburnable.” The only world in which drilling the Arctic would be economically viable is a world where we burn three times more oil than it takes to wreck the climate. In that dystopia, coastal cities sink under rising, acidified oceans.
Shell has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Their lease to establish a “home port” in Seattle was negotiated under a “verbal nondisclosure agreement,” which allowed Shell’s hired guns to campaign aggressively for approval, while opponents were kept in the dark. Citizens are incensed, and the mayor and City Council are trying to assert the overwhelming opposition of the community they represent. Even Port of Seattle commissioners who approved the lease profess to oppose Arctic drilling.
These cloak-and-dagger tactics won Shell a lease it never would have been granted in the full light of day. The city has now found that hosting the drilling fleet would violate the Port’s shoreline permit — one of many issues that might have surfaced had the Port handled this issue in an open, public way.
Mayor Ed Murray said, “I expect the Port to obtain all required city permits before any moorage or work begins at Terminal 5 on Shell’s oil-drilling equipment.” If there was ever any doubt about whether the Port can or should rescind the ill-considered lease, the permit violation should erase it.
None of this — let us stipulate — should be necessary. Challenging Shell’s lease in Seattle is clearly not the most efficient way to protect the climate. In a rational world, we would have a binding international treaty holding global emissions to safe levels. We would have a functional U.S. Congress that would have adopted a responsible climate policy. We would have firm limits on climate pollution and — as economists on the left and right agree — a price on that pollution so energy markets could more efficiently deliver solutions.
In that world, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would not be issuing leases to drill for oil that cannot be burned without violating the Obama administration’s international climate commitments. The relevant committee in the U.S. Senate would not be chaired by a climate denier who brings snowballs to the Senate floor to show that climate change is a hoax. In this hypothetical sane world, no one would be proposing Arctic drilling because it would violate global treaties, national laws, common sense, scientific rationality and the intergenerational contract.
We should live in that world. But the fossil-fuel industry has systematically denied us that opportunity — funding climate-science denial and threatening democracy with gushers of campaign cash to purchase political outcomes that preclude climate progress. And so the drilling rig bears down on Seattle.
Few of us would consciously choose the future we’ll get if we allow continuing expansion of fossil-fuel development — a future of unthinkable human suffering caused by climate chaos and unchecked domination of our democratic institutions by fossil-fuel interests. The oil industry understands this, so its strategy is to convince us that we have no choice — that unending oil dependence is the only way to produce jobs and prosperity. Its grip on power depends on our willingness to believe that we cannot hope to win our best and only viable future: a clean energy future. This fatalism — even more than the industry’s immense political and economic power — is the ultimate tyranny of oil. The test before us now is whether we will accept it.
Seattle knows we do have a choice — and an action plan. The “shared vision of sustainable prosperity” was developed by business, labor, environmental, education and multicultural community leaders convened by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
We are exercising that choice now — reducing fossil-fuel dependence and building a healthy clean-energy economy that can produce broadly shared economic opportunity. A healthy working waterfront is an important part of our vision: It shouldn’t be used to service drilling operations that recklessly stoke the climate crisis and mock our community’s values.
Even the Port of Seattle calls itself “The Green Gateway — Where a Sustainable World is Headed.” But what’s headed here now is a drilling fleet that would foreclose that future. If our shared vision is real, we’re going to have to stand up for it.
As the mayor said, “It’s time to turn the page. 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.”
KC Golden is senior policy adviser for Climate Solutions, a nonprofit advocate for clean energy.