Alaska News

Seattle requires new permit for Shell's drill ship to moor, but may not issue it

A drill ship that Shell intends to use to drill oil wells in Arctic waters off Alaska cannot be moored at the Port of Seattle without a new permit, Seattle city officials said Monday.

The Polar Pioneer drill ship and its accompanying tugboats do not -- for now -- belong at the port's Terminal 5, a site currently devoted to cargo ships, Seattle's Department of Planning and Development said in a finding released Monday.

The port lease held by Shell contractor Foss Maritime covers only cargo operations, not moorage and maintenance of oil rigs and oil-related vessels, the department said in its finding.

For Foss to use its lease to moor the Polar Pioneer and its tugs at the terminal, the port must obtain a new permit, the department said in its findings.

That process could take "several weeks," said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

The lease Foss holds was intended to allow the company to use the port terminal to moor the Polar Pioneer and its tugs for up to six months of the year, the period when drilling is not occurring.

Shell's reaction to the finding was terse. "We are reviewing the interpretation," the company said in a statement sent by Alaska spokeswoman Megan Baldino.

The Polar Pioneer is one of two drill ships that Shell has contracted to operate in the remote Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska. The other drill ship Shell plans to use is the Noble Discoverer.

Only the Polar Pioneer was scheduled to use the Port of Seattle terminal, according to Seattle city officials. The ship and its tugs have not yet arrived at the site, Kelly said.

The Polar Pioneer, owned by Transocean, replaces the Shell-owned Kulluk drill ship, which was damaged when it grounded in the Gulf of Alaska on Dec. 31, 2012. Shell determined the Kulluk was too badly damaged to be worth repairing.

Shell's exploration plan proposes that the Discoverer and Polar Pioneer drill simultaneously in the Chukchi this year, to complete the single well started in 2012 and begin five additional wells.

But like Shell's entire offshore Arctic program, the company's plans to use the Port of Seattle as a staging site for its Arctic drilling campaign have been controversial in that city.

A coalition of environmental groups on March 2 filed a lawsuit in Washington state court seeking to overturn the Foss lease of Terminal 5. The lawsuit maintains that the drill-rig plan violates state law and the port's Shoreline Substantial Development Permit.

Local politicians have weighed in against the plan, including the mayor, who on March 9 ordered an official review paralleling the lawsuit's arguments about the city permit.

Monday's finding was the direct result of that review.

Murray, in a statement, said the department conclusion that a new permit is needed for the oil-related vessels gives port managers "an opportunity to pause and rethink this issue."

"To prevent the full force of climate change, it's time to turn the page on things like coal trains, oil trains and oil drilling rigs. It's time to focus on the economy of the future: electric cars and transit, green homes and environmentally progressive businesses," he said in his statement.

While the requirement for a new permit might not stop the plans for Foss to use the site, Murray said, "I urge the port to consider, is this really the right use of Terminal 5, even for the short term? Does this use reflect the businesses of the future we want in Seattle? This is an opportunity for the port and all of us to make a bold statement about how oil companies contribute to climate change, oil spills and other environmental disasters -- and reject this short-term lease."

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.