Audubon in Action

The Shell Lease at the Port of Seattle Is Bad News for Birds

The major West Coast port’s shady dealings with the largest company in the world could spell disaster for Puget Sound’s wildlife, a new lawsuit claims.

Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet has a new lease on the Seattle waterfront, but a lawsuit filed March 2 by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups aims to bar the vessels from moving in.

For months, employees of the publicly owned Port of Seattle and of Foss Maritime, a shipping company that provides towing and support services for Shell, allegedly conducted secret negotiations on a deal that would turn a former cargo terminal into the port for the eight drilling vessels Shell deploys in Arctic waters. If the deal goes through, Washington state’s shipping channels would become home base for the drill rigs, ice-breakers, environmental response vessels, tugs, and barges that haul oil and gas out of the Arctic Circle to commercial ports around the world.

Though the final $13 million two-year lease was inked February 9, the fleet has not yet moved in, and the environmental groups, including Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, The Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, and Seattle Audubon Society, are asking the court to void the lease before it does.

The formal complaint against the Port of Seattle, the port’s five commissioners, and Foss argues that local and state laws were violated when the moorage lease was approved without an environmental review—and with virtually no input from the public. Under state law, both are required when converting the terminal to a different use.

But it’s not a procedural error that concerns environmentalists. Under the present arrangement, “the full panoply of Arctic drilling vessels,” as the suit terms it, would move through Puget Sound on their way to be serviced and repaired at the port. Transporting so many weathered or damaged vessels through both the Sound and Washington’s Elliot Bay could pose a serious threat—including the potential for crude spills—to the region’s marine wildlife. According to Seattle Audubon conservation manager Susan North, 42 seabird species have been observed locally in recent years, including six that are considered indicators of Puget Sound’s health: the Rhinoceros Auklet, the Pigeon Guillemot, the Surf Scoter, the White-winged Scoter, the Black Scoter, and the Marbled Murrelet, which is classified as threatened at both the state and federal levels.

“Many migratory and breeding bird species that are already in decline use our waters as their homes and are at great risk from oil and other pollutants,” says North. Seattle Audubon, she adds, is “extremely concerned about the potential for oil and chemical pollution.”

But docking at Seattle is just the prelude to Shell’s plans for the waters off Alaska. The fleet Foss has proposed berthing in Seattle is the same one that Shell will dispatch to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas if they are granted permission to drill there later this year. The company is aiming to claim its share of the estimated 15.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil—about $750 billion at going rates.

What’s more, Shell may have circumvented the process meant to assess the burden the ships—and their future fossil fuel payloads—might add to the local ecosystem. An Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last month gave Shell a tentative green light, despite the report freely acknowledging the 75-percent chance that a major oil spill would have disastrous consequences for local wildlife. “It looks like a real rush job—they hammered it out with the specific purpose of allowing Shell to drill this summer,” says Jim Adams, policy director of Audubon Alaska. “That’s not the way an EIS is supposed to work.”

Environmental groups will likely request an injunction to stop this summer’s drilling once the 30-day period is up in mid-March. For now though, they can concentrate on its efforts in Washington. “Drilling in the Arctic has been a dirty business,” Earthjustice’s Goldman says. “Now, this dirty business is being brought into the Port of Seattle.”

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