The mayor made a late play to stop it, citing permit violations. The port commission, under pressure from the city and the public, politely asked for a delay. A City Council member put his paddle where his politics are, joining a few dozen other “kayaktivists” who decided to meet the beast at sea.
But permits and paddlers were no match for the Polar Pioneer, the giant yellow drilling rig that Royal Dutch Shell intends to make a regular resident here as part of its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Escorted by tugboats, police boats and the Coast Guard, the rig made its way through Puget Sound on a sunwashed Thursday afternoon and settled into its newest home, Terminal 5 in the Port of Seattle. It made for a contentious addition to the skyline of a city that has long been an environmental leader.
“That is a monument to the hubris of the oil industry,” Councilman Mike O’Brien said as he surveyed the docked Polar Pioneer from shore Thursday after spending three hours on the water. Several dozen other paddlers included representatives of the Lummi and Duwamish tribes in a wooden oceangoing canoe, and Greenpeace activists in power boats who ferried out members of the news media.
As the Polar Pioneer paused in front of downtown about 3 p.m., the paddlers “ungreeted” it with chants of, “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”
The rig may not be popular, but Shell’s opponents here could do little to prevent its arrival. For one thing, as noted by Paul Queary, a spokesman for Foss Maritime, the company that is leasing Terminal 5 to Shell, “we have the bigger boat.”
There is also the matter of the lease. Shell is scheduled to pay Foss about $14 million for using the 50-acre Terminal 5 for two years. Two dozen Shell vessels will use the port, including another drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, which is docked to the north in Everett, Wash., and scheduled to arrive in Seattle this month.
The protests had been planned for many weeks but took on new urgency after the Obama adminstration on Monday gave Shell conditional approval to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea as early as this summer, pending approvals by other federal and state agencies. If Shell gets those approvals, the vessels docked here are scheduled to head north in June for the summer drilling season.
Seattle may not be free of them for long.
“They should be back in late October or early November,” Queary said. “My house overlooks Terminal 5, so I would be looking at it all winter.”
O’Brien and others said the fight to keep Shell away will continue, through protests and legal action.
Last week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Shell’s lease with Foss violated regulations because the city expects the company to do maintenance work on the vessels, not just load and unload cargo -- which is all Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development says is permitted under the lease.
In a tense meeting Tuesday, port commissioners voted to appeal the city’s finding. They also asked Shell to delay the vessel's arrival while the appeal is pending. Shell and Foss chose not to wait.
“The port asked us nicely to not come while the legal thing was being resolved, which they knew we couldn’t do and are not doing,” Queary said.
The city and the port are separate entities with separate elected leaders. O’Brien said if a city hearing officer and potentially a King County judge find that the lease violates Seattle’s land-use rules, the port could be forced to reconsider whether it wants to grant the lease. That could happen whether Shell is at Terminal 5 or up north.
For now, the Polar Pioneer, 400 feet long and more than 300 feet tall, is indisputably here.
“Look at that, it’s putting itself on display for the city,” Stephanie Hillman, a Seattle resident piloting a Greenpeace boat, said as the rig slowed in front of the waterfront. “That’s disgusting.”
Greenpeace, which helped coordinate the kayak flotilla, did some visuals management of its own. At one point, when the kayakers were aligned just so, signs aloft, with the Polar Pioneer behind them and the city and the Space Needle in the distance, a Seattle Police Department boat pulled up behind the paddlers.
A Greenpeace photographer called out, “Can somebody kindly ask the police to move so we can get some good optics?”
More protests are coming. A much larger kayak flotilla is being organized for Saturday, and an onshore protest is set for Monday.
Last month, six Greenpeace activists boarded the Polar Pioneer when it was near Hawaii and being ferried by a larger ship. They stayed for six days, setting up camp on its pontoons. On Thursday, protesters respected a 500-meter perimeter enforced by the Coast Guard and police.
Cassady Sharp, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace who flew out from Washington, D.C., noted that the Polar Pioneer’s arrival in Seattle was just one chapter in the narrative.
“Honestly,” Sharp said, “the bigger moment is when they leave here and when they’re drilling for oil in Alaska. They’re not drilling for oil in Seattle. Of course, the endgame is for the Obama administration to cancel the lease to drill in the Chukchi Sea.”