Shutting Down Shell in Seattle

The Pacific Northwest metropolis is the latest battleground over global warming as the oil giant assembles its Arctic drilling fleet in one of the country’s most environmentally aware cities.

Climate activists in Seattle plan to go national with their campaign against Shell Oil's Arctic drilling. (Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters)

May 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

It could be a long, hot spring in Seattle as one of the nation’s greenest cities becomes a new front in the climate wars. With Shell Oil using the Port of Seattle as the staging ground for its Arctic drilling fleet, activists are vowing to disrupt the petroleum giant’s plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean in the coming months.

On Saturday, some 2,000 protesters turned out on land and in water in Seattle, vaulting the “Shell No” campaign onto the international stage. Photographs and video circulated the globe via social media, showing the Polar Pioneer—the company’s gargantuan, acid-yellow Arctic oil drilling platform—looming over several hundred kayakers holding protest signs.

When the Obama administration last week gave Shell conditional approval to drill in the Arctic Ocean, activists in Seattle were ready.

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Emily Johnston, 48, a cofounder of the grassroots climate action group 350 Seattle, said she and other area activists learned that the Port of Seattle intended to lease docking terminal space for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet when local news media broke the story in January.

“So one of the greenest cities in the country is going to host Shell’s drilling rigs, which if they succeed in their mission will cause havoc with the climate?” she said. “We were appalled.”

Saturday’s “Paddle in Seattle,” as well as a march attempting to blockade workers from getting to the Polar Pioneer on Monday, were just the beginning of an ongoing opposition campaign against Arctic Ocean drilling, she said.

"With elected leadership having utterly failed us, we have no alternative but to launch a movement of non-violent civil disobedience to stop this project," said Seattle City Councilmember Ksharma Sawant in an email. Sawant, a socialist, has publicly supported the protests, despite the economic hit Seattle's port and its workers might take if Shell's business goes elsewhere.

“The goal, to the extent possible, is to stop or delay work” at Shell's port operations, Johnston said. “They have a very narrow drilling window. Maybe we can materially narrow that window.”

Johnston did not want to offer details about what shape future protests might take. “There is going to be tons of pressure on the port commissioners to rescind Shell’s lease,” she said, as well as close attention on the city permitting process. “I know it makes it harder for an agency to do things in a shoddy way when there’s this much attention being paid to the process.”

Many of the Seattle groups that protested against Shell’s use of the port have spent the past three years organizing against fossil fuel export terminals in the Pacific Northwest as well as the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. “It’s entirely possible that some groups will do small actions that we don’t know about in advance,” Johnston said.

At a minimum, Johnston believes, the “Shell No” campaign can do for Arctic Ocean drilling what the campaign to stop the Keystone oil pipeline has done for that project: transform the air of political and economic inevitability that hangs around most major oil or gas projects.

“KXL hasn’t been stopped, but it hasn’t been built, even though the majority of energy industry folks said it was a done deal. We’ve been able to change the discussion around building the pipeline,” Johnston said. “We’re trying to change the whole context in which this is happening and shine a light on the fact that Arctic drilling is crazy.”

Ahmed Gaya agrees. The 29-year-old Seattle resident is a volunteer organizer with Rising Tide Seattle, part of a network of about a dozen grassroots climate action groups around North America. He and Johnston were among the key organizers of the “Shell No” protests in Seattle.

“Changing the direction of the conversation on Arctic drilling is a big goal,” said Gaya. Another, “for many of us, through the Shell No Action Council, is to shift the climate conversation from Shell’s project to fossil fuel projects more broadly.”

One sign that a broad grassroots movement on climate change has caught fire is how many people helped organize and put on the "Shell No" protests, said Gaya.

“Over 200 people were involved in the planning and organizing of this weekend’s actions,” he said. “The vast majority were ordinary citizens who have never done something like this before.”

He and Johnston also highlighted the diversity of the protesters, which included members of Native American communities in Alaska and Washington as well as Filipino American community organizers.

On Wednesday the Rising Tide network that Gaya works with launched a new effort, called "Flood the System," in advance of December’s international climate treaty negotiations.

"Flood the System" will take “ ‘Shell No’ actions as a model” for grassroots groups and concerned citizens around the country, Gaya said, to inspire "mass civil disobedience, organized along the same lines of mass democratic participation that we used in Seattle" in the months leading up the United Nations–sponsored talks, which will be held in Paris.

“I think that the activists have been very successful at bringing a lot of media attention to Shell’s activities in the Arctic,” said Mia Bennett, a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in Arctic geopolitics.

“This could give momentum to [grassroots] desires to stop other companies from drilling in the Arctic,” she said, even though Shell is likely to execute on its drilling plans this year.

The actions in Seattle “highlight how a lot of emerging climate politics are happening at the city level, rather than through national governments,” said Bennett, and suggest that climate activism may be changing and evolving.

“There’s a new geographic logic,” she said, “to how climate activists are trying to insert themselves into the debate, with Arctic drilling especially, with high-profile protests right where the infrastructure is, rather than going through Washington, D.C., or Anchorage.”