Monday, May 18, 2015

In the News: Front lines of climate fight move to Seattle as city declares "Shell No!"

Space Needle at night. Lainey Piland photo

When Shell's Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig chugged into Puget Sound amidst much controversy last Thursday afternoon, it brought the ever-shifting front lines of the climate fight right here to Seattle.  And can I just say... I am so proud of the way that our city has responded to the arrival of this behemoth: stating loud and clear that the Emerald City has no interest in being the home base for Shell's arctic drilling fleet and participating in the destruction of the climate, the environment, and the lives of indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

During its journey from Port Angeles to the port of Seattle last Thursday, the Polar Pioneer was closely followed by news helicopters and its movements monitored by thousands of people on social media. It became a spectacle, and was even a trending topic on Twitter. Upon reaching Seattle, the rig was greeted by a small fleet of "kayaktivists" (okay, does it get much more Seattle than that?! Please tell me we coined that word...) bearing signs emblazoned with the words "Shell No," "Climate Justice Now," and the ominous "Chief Seattle is Watching".

On Saturday, the Shell No Flotilla consisting of hundreds of kayaks and canoes and one brave swimmer hit the waters for the "Paddle in Seattle" in protest. A harbor seal even hitched a ride and joined in on the fun. The protestors were dwarfed in comparison as they swarmed around the monstrous yellow legs of the 307-foot tall drilling rig; chanting, drumming, singing, and holding banners and signs aloft. I don't know if the world has ever seen a protest like this one.  The aerial photos of the Paddle In Seattle are astounding, with so many colorful kayaks clustered on the water that Puget Sound appeared to have had a handful of confetti blown over it. Check out a photo gallery here.

On Monday, hundreds of protestors hit the streets and marched to Terminal 5 at the port of Seattle, where the Polar Pioneer is now moored, and successfully slowed down - if not stopping altogether - Shell's operations for most of the workday by blocking workers from accessing the terminal. There was chanting, singing, dancing, sign-waving and even pizza eating. According to a few Tweets I saw, police were "present but relaxed," and there were no arrests.

I really have to hand it to the organizers of these protests.  The events were carefully planned weeks in advance and thoughtfully, peacefully, and respectfully carried out.  There were no arrests that I'm aware of, no violence, no riots, and no destruction (although it was - ahem - gently suggested that perhaps the drilling rig should be scuttled and repurposed into an underwater reef...).  This is how you gain respect and attention for your cause! Great job, "Shell No" protestors, organizers, and kayaktivists!

Here I am kayaking a few years ago....  Not part of Saturday's flotilla, but I was there in spirit!

So, what's the big deal with this oil drilling rig? Why is everyone protesting the presence of the Polar Pioneer in Seattle? There are a few main reasons:

1. Risk of oil spills during drilling operations. We remember the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. We remember the Deepwater Horizion oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Neither of these ecosystems have recovered - or likely ever will recover - from the toxic effects of all that spilled oil. There is great concern that the Polar Pioneer's offshore drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northern coast will lead to a devastating oil spill in the ecologically fragile Arctic. Due to its remote location, any spill in this area will be difficult - if not impossible- to clean up. Adding to this concern is the fact that the Polar Pioneer is operated by Transocean: the very same offshore drilling company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig responsible for the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

2. Climate change. The scientific community at large has agreed that we must limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. In order to have even the remotest chance, the slightest whisper of hope to accomplish this, all fossil fuels that are currently underground need to stay there, and this includes any oil that would be drilled from the Arctic by the Polar Pioneer. We cannot afford to drill or mine these fossil fuels and burn them. Doing so would push us far beyond the 2 degrees of warming and into truly frightening territory where we face a planet so warm as to be unlivable for most species.  Including humans.

3. Justice for indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Arctic are already suffering the effects of climate change. Allowing the Polar Pioneer to drill for oil right in their backyard is a slap in the face to these communities already facing warmer temperatures, melting permafrost, rising sea levels, and changes in the abundance and availability of food. Not to mention that any oil spill that poisons the ocean and harms marine life would further jeopardize the ability of these peoples to continue a way of life they've known for thousands of years. The Huffington Post published an excellent but heartbreaking case study of an Alaskan town devastated by climate change: read it here.

Bill McKibben lays out these concerns amidst his scathing critique of the President's recent decision to green-light oil drilling in the Arctic - read it here.

Ultimately, the protests in Seattle are making a statement that the Emerald City does not want to be a host to the fossil fuel industry. These dirty, dangerous fuels are a thing of the past, and it is time to move forward toward a better, brighter future fueled by clean energy and leading to a healthier planet and livable climate - the joyful, hopeful spirit of which permeated these recent rallies and protests.

The people didn't get any choice in the matter when the decision was made to allow Shell to park its Arctic drilling operations in Seattle.  But we're making our voices heard now!

Lainey Piland photo

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