by Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper

Chris on Patrol“This waterway is restricted to commercial traffic only.” Those were the words from the US Coast Guard last Friday, May 15, after Puget Soundkeeper’s patrol boat declared its intention over marine radio to transit the west waterway of the Duwamish River, our normal route for the last 25 years.

Although the Soundkeeper boat was eventually allowed onto the river last Friday, access to the Duwamish River, a public waterway, is greatly reduced by the mandatory 100-yard exclusion zone around the Shell Oil fleet currently moored at Terminal 5. At one point this “safety zone” encompasses more than 80 percent of the river. This amounts to an appropriation of public waters for private enterprise ­ and if the lease stands, so will the exclusion of our waters, for close to 8 months out of the year.

The Coast Guard’s caution was solely in anticipation of the brewing controversy behind Shell Oil’s massive drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, which had arrived one day earlier at Terminal 5 to occupy Seattle’s waterfront. Unless it is overturned, the closed-door deal between the Port of Seattle and Foss Maritime, conducted without necessary environmental review or appropriate public process, means that Shell now has use of the terminal for the next two years as a home base for Arctic drilling operations. The lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in March 2015, representing Puget Soundkeeper along with Washington Environmental Council, Sierra Club and Seattle Audubon, charges that such a lease must be invalidated as it requires new permitting and environmental review.

Shell’s venture has broad global implications, but Soundkeeper’s primary concern rests in local waters. This is our central role. The health of the Sound is precarious and Shell’s rig and support vessels have a history of polluted discharge which would have to be disclosed, evaluated and mitigated before any permit could be granted. We would need to know the extent of their planned industrial operations. Our waters should not be the dumping ground for boats and drilling equipment battered in the Arctic.

We must also acknowledge the implications for the health of the Arctic, climate change and ocean acidification. Soundkeeper proudly stands in solidarity with the nearly 2,000 people who took to the water to protest Shell’s presence on Saturday May 16 at the “Paddle in Seattle”, a colorful Seattle-style event which has gained national attention. The Soundkeeper boat made its rounds and hosted a KOMO-TV news crew to help bring the story to the world and to explain our unique role. This memorable event was extremely well organized and was one for the record books.

Kayaktivists protest Shell Oil's drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, while it is moored at the Port of Seattle.

The event was planned by the Backbone Campaign, 350Seattle, Rising Tide Seattle, the Mosquito Fleet, and Bayan USA. Despite the celebratory vibe, the mission was serious and clear: Global climate change must be addressed, as well as the injustice many nations and cultures face as a result of fossil fuels and climate disruption. Protecting the Arctic from a catastrophic spill and protecting our local waterways loomed large as well.

If Arctic drilling goes forward, the repercussions will be felt both locally and far beyond Puget Sound. On January 9, the journal Nature produced a report highlighting the importance of not drilling the Arctic. The conclusion: if we are to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise—an amounted believed to be necessary to prevent catastrophic change—we must leave large amounts of oil and coal in the ground. At 16% of the world’s oil reserves, the Arctic is an area of extreme energy that must be left alone. Unleashing it would have devastating effects on climate disruption, sea level rise and ocean acidification, all of which would dramatically change our region. Estimates reveal a 75% chance of a major spill in the Chukchi sea, which would devastate indigenous populations and Arctic wildlife, including some of the migratory birds that call on Puget Sound in the winter months.

Governor Inslee said recently that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it. One thing is clear from the events of May 16. This discussion is happening, and Seattle is on the forefront. And the world is watching.

Note: A peaceful civil protest and blockade action occurred on May 18. This event is a sign of the seriousness of the issue and the passion of the advocates. Puget Soundkeeper is not a part of this action and does not include civil disobedience in its strategies or actions.