Meet the Beast

Activists raft up to protest Shell oil rigs

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It rises 355 feet high, like a football field stood on end that keeps going. From front to back its sprawling platform spans 400 feet, held up by eight giant iron legs, four to a side, thicker than bridge supports. A white derrick rises from the middle like an elongated eye; or a raised middle finger. With a little imagination, it could be an erector-set nightmare created by a comic book villain, or an oversized “transformer” character.

It’s an arctic drilling rig, which its operators, Royal Dutch Shell, call the Polar Pioneer. Protesters call it the Polar Polluter. I call it simply the Beast, because it recalls to me the sphinx-like creature in Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming:” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” Only this rough beast slouches toward the arctic, there to stab at the fertile bed of the Chukchi Sea, searching for oil.

But first it must be brought to Seattle to be outfitted. And there’s the hitch—a lot of unhappy people will be waiting to greet it.
Its precise destination is Terminal 5 at the back of Elliot Bay. Foss Maritime has signed with Shell to turn terminal 5 into a home port for Shell’s fleet of arctic drilling rigs, ice breakers, tugs and support vessels.

The tug Aivik has already arrived, and a second drilling rig, the Noble Discover (for drilling relief bores in the case of a blowout) is currently steaming across the Pacific, en route.

As many as eight vessels could eventually moor there, effectively rendering Seattle a gateway to arctic oil exploration, something climate-conscious Seattleites are none too happy about.

Protesters have packed Port Commission meetings, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray along with the Seattle City Council have directed Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development to investigate whether, in approving the Terminal 5 lease, the Port of Seattle violated state law and its shoreline permit. Meanwhile, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, and Seattle Audubon Society have teamed with Earthjustice in a legal fight to have the lease vacated.

Of course, the most salient aspect of the Polar Pioneer’s port destination is geographical: It lies in the heart of Cascadia, home to hundreds of thousands of woods-wise, sea-bred souls who get it about the climate, and are appropriately outraged, determined and organized. Protests are planned.

Rising Tide Seattle, 350 Seattle, Bayan USA (a coalition of 18 Philippine organizations), Backbone Campaign, and Mosquito Fleet have joined forces under the banner sHell NO! ( Together, they pledge to “transform Terminal 5 and Harbor Island into a Festival of Resistance that will non-violently block Shell’s preparations for drilling.”

In the offing is everything from family-friendly protest activities to a floating blockade of “kayaktivists” (activists in kayaks). Recent reporting from The Stranger suggests the organizing and training exercises are attracting a wide diversity of people, young and old.

Local activist Herb Goodwin is one of them. He’s taken on the goal of enlisting 100 kayaktivists from the Bellingham/Whatcom area. He envisions individual groups organizing their own kayaktivist contingents as affinity groups.

Any group could participate—be it a business, a Ski-to-Sea team, or a hiking club—whatever. When enough people have climbed aboard, Goodwin will bring up trainers from the Backbone Campaign and/or Greenpeace for training in banner raising, rafting and general safety.
“Science tells us that 80 percent of existing oil reserves must remain in the ground, uncombusted, if we’re to avoid climate meltdown,” Goodwin said, adding, “stand with the kayaktivists and rise up, Cascadians. The Web of Life needs you!”

It isn’t known exactly when the Polar Pioneer will enter Elliot Bay, but it’s expected sometime in early to mid-May.
Currently, it’s stationed in Port Angeles, where its arrival was greeted by a hardy crew of local kayaktivists, hoisting a banner reading “sHell—ARCTIC DRILLING = CLIMATE CHAOS.”

The Pioneer’s journey across the Pacific had its share of drama as well, where it was dogged by the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, a retrofitted Russian fire-fighting vessel.

At one point, in a daring maneuver, six Greenpeace activists managed to occupy the undercarriage of the vessel, sending out press releases and unfurling a banner that read “Shell vs. The People.” They held to the vessel for six days before rough seas eventually forced them to abandon the Polar Pioneer and return to the Esperanza.

This isn’t the first time Shell has attempted to find oil in the arctic. Interestingly, the company’s initial effort also had origins in Seattle. There, the drill rig for that mission, the Kulluk, was refurbished by Vigor Marine. The tug for the Kulluk, the Aivik, now stationed at Terminal 5, also moored in Seattle, as did the secondary drilling vessel, the Noble Explorer.

In June of 2012, under sunny skies, all three vessels exited Elliot Bay and turned north, eventually anchoring at Dutch Harbor, 2,000 miles northwest. There they waited for the ice-choked Chukchi Sea to begin its summer melt, before undertaking the final leg of the journey.

Then the troubles began.

The Noble Discover got caught by 30- knot winds and was dragged off anchor onto shore, where it had to be rescued. The Aivik, battered by arctic swells, would take seawater in fuel intakes and electrical systems, eventually becoming disabled until it could be repaired at Dutch Harbor. A containment dome built and moored in Bellingham on-board the Arctic Challenger fell victim to an electrical failure that caused it to sink 120 feet where it was “crushed like a beer can,” according to engineers from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, who documented the event.

Mishap by mishap, the expedition deteriorated, and time eventually ran out on Shell’s ambitions. In the end, they would partially drill only two of five planned wells, before the sea ice began to rebuild and the mission turned to getting the Kulluk to safe harbor. That’s when troubles turned to nightmare.

By all standards, the Aivik is a mighty vessel capable of towing the Kulluk to safer waters, but wild arctic swells and a succession of storms stymied its efforts. Tow lines snapped. Overarching waves fouled fuel intakes, and—one by one—all four of the Aivik’s main diesel engines died.

What began as a tow operation suddenly shifted to a rescue mission. The U.S. Coast Guard took over, coordinating an operation involving more than 100 people in offices, and a harrowing succession of dangerous helicopter lifts to save the lives of the 18 crewmen still aboard the Kulluk. The coast guard safely rescued the crew members.

The Kulluk, however, was still adrift. A Coast Guard cutter was called in, but a tow line got caught around its propeller and it too was disabled. It was left for another, smaller tug, the Alert, to attempt the tow. But the vessel was too small. The Kulluk was drifting toward land and pulling the Alert with it.

On New Years Eve, 2012, the decision was made to let the tow line spool out and vanish into the sea, and the Kulluk was driven ashore.

When it was all over the Kulluk was declared a total loss by Shell. Noble Drilling, operators of the Noble Discover, would plead guilty to eight felony charges and agree to $12.2 million in fines.

But here’s the most amazing thing: Shell wants to go back for more.

There are many kinds of arithmetic we do in a day, calculating tips, counting pocket change, etc. But there is also such a thing as moral arithmetic. The moral arithmetic facing Royal Dutch Shell might look something like this:

1. The Chukchi Sea has proven itself to be an extremely dangerous place to drill; a spill there would be essentially impossible to contain and clean up. The Bureau of Ocean Management has recently predicted a 75 percent chance of just such a spill.

2. The Chukchi sea, with its shallow waters and surrounding ice ridges, nurtures a uniquely rich web of life. The Audubon Society calls it “one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.” It is home to roughly half of America’s polar bears, tens of thousands of walruses, five kinds of seal, fin whales, humpback whales, beluga and bowhead, snow crab and saffron cod, and millions of shorebirds, seabirds and waterfowl.

3. Over the last couple years it’s become clear that most new deposits of oil will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate chaos. Recent research in the journal Nature “finds no climate-friendly scenario in which any oil or gas is drilled in the arctic.” Even financial stalwarts such as the Bank of England and Goldman Sachs are acknowledging the new climate reality—expensive fossil fuel projects, such as arctic oil exploration, are worthless investments.

If you add this up you arrive at a pretty clear sum: Leave the arctic alone.

And yet stubbornly, almost insanely, Shell persists.

I’ve described the Polar Pioneer as the Beast, but it’s just a chunk of metal, a symbol, though a particularly striking one at that. The Beast doesn’t raise its middle finger at the next generation, the controllers of Royal Dutch Shell do. The Beast doesn’t raise its finger at the local peoples and animal life of the Chukchi Sea, some terrible and inexplicable blindness at the heart of our economic system does that.

Well, Shell’s decision is made, the motion is set. Soon, the Beast will float into Elliot Bay. And there it will encounter something—not a single rigid entity like itself, but a gathering, spread out and flowing, of individual human beings. Some will be on the water, floating and bobbing, others will be on land, staring and determined. Dawning on all will be the realization that we are not just in the fight of our lives, but the fight for all life.

The climate crisis often seems diffuse, clouded with numbers and distanced by vast time scales. The climate crisis, it could be said, is hard to “see.” But there, in that moment, when the Beast meets the people, the crux of the matter, the essential outlines, will be crystal clear.

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