Protesters Form Human Curtain to Block Arctic-Bound Shell Oil Icebreaker

Greenpeace activists dangle from a Portland, Oregon, bridge in a bid to derail plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean this summer.

Activists opposed to Arctic oil drilling blocked an icebreaker's route out of Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday. (Photo: Courtesy Steve Dipaola/Greenpeace)

Jul 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Just before 3 a.m. PT on Wednesday, 13 protesters dropped climbing ropes over the side of the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon. Then they launched themselves into space, descending the ropes until they were dangling about 100 feet above the darkened nighttime waters of the Willamette River.

The result was a “human curtain” that a coalition of groups—including Greenpeace, Rising Tide, Climate Action Coalition, and 350 PDX—hope will block the departure of an icebreaker from a nearby marine repair facility. That could upend Shell Oil’s summer drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean and perhaps even change the course of the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy policy.

The MSV Fennica arrived in Portland Sunday for repairs to a 39-inch-long hull gash sustained as the vessel tried to leave Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for the Arctic Ocean on July 3. The ship carries a key piece of emergency equipment required by the Obama administration: a capping stack meant to seal a runaway oil well on the seafloor.

Until the Fennica arrives at Shell’s ocean drilling lease site in the Chukchi Sea, about 85 miles north of Wainwright, Alaska, federal officials will not allow Shell to bore deeply enough to strike oil.

The St. Johns Bridge is between the Swan Island Basin, where the Fennica is dry docked, and the route to the Pacific Ocean.

Steve Nichols usually spends his workday managing Greenpeace’s street-level fund-raising campaigns in Oregon’s largest city. But on Wednesday he was on the St. Johns Bridge, “at the anchor end for the rope of one of the climbers below, supporting and keeping an eye on her,” he said. There was one anchor person for every person hanging from the span, he said.

“I feel morally compelled to do something about climate change, which I think is the greatest threat facing our generation,” said Nichols, 30. “Shell drilling in the Arctic would make that problem so much worse than it is.”

Burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change. Scientists have warned that unless nations sharply reduce this carbon pollution by 2050 and eliminate it by 2075, the effects of climate change—such as rising seas, hotter temperatures, and changing rainfall—will become almost impossible to manage.

A recent study found that all the gas and oil beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor must remain untapped to avert the worst effects of global warming.

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“Due to the influence of oil in politics, it’s not as plain to see for the politicians in charge,” Nichols said. “That’s why we’re out here on a bridge.”

Delaying the Fennica’s departure for Alaska would shorten Shell’s drilling season in the Arctic, Nichols said. But there was a bigger point to the protest as well: taking Arctic Ocean oil drilling totally off the table. “Obama can step in and shut this thing down,” he said. “It’s an administrative decision, through the Department of Interior, which is part of his cabinet, not about Congress. He has the power.”

Shell has held these leases in the Arctic Ocean since they were offered by the Bush administration in 2008.

Speaking by mobile phone several hours into the protest action, Nichols said there had been no sign that local law enforcement intended to remove the activists from their perches. “They’re trying to figure out how long we’re going to be here. We’re going to be here as long as we can to stop this ship from leaving,” he said.

A Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed that in cooperation with the Portland Police Department and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the Coast Guard is monitoring the protest, which also includes kayakers on the river below the bridge. “We encourage people to express their First Amendment rights but safely and without impeding commercial traffic,” said Petty Officer First Class George Degener. “The individuals [on the bridge] have not impeded any commercial traffic so far and indicated a willingness to move for legitimate commercial traffic. Their only concern is to block the movement of the Fennica.”

Degener did not know whether the positions of the protesters between the bridge and the water would impede the Fennica when it left Portland.

Shell Oil expressed no alarm about the protest. “The Fennica will begin its return journey to Alaska once we’ve completed the final preparations,” said Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith in an email. “As for the activities of the day, we respect the choice that anyone might make to protest based on Shell’s Arctic aspirations; we just ask that they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law.”