The pretzel logic used by Mayor Ed Murray’s administration to deny a berth for Shell’s Arctic oil-drilling rig has potentially far-reaching consequences.

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SEATTLE Mayor Ed Murray asked his planning department this spring to decide whether the Shell oil-drilling rig Polar Pioneer was parked legally at the Port of Seattle. He described it as a genuine question. “It could have gone either way,” he said recently.

In fact, city staff initially determined in April that Shell’s temporary berth at Terminal 5 was consistent with city land-use rules. But two weeks later, after what was described as extensive arguments in City Hall, the city’s final legal interpretation reversed: Shell must go.

It is unclear what political considerations played into that curious reversal. The mayor’s staff insists there were none, but we can’t know for sure because city officials say the arguments that led to the reversal fall under the veil of attorney-client privilege. You can decide on your own.

But to reach this reversal, the city’s Department of Planning and Development used a tortured and novel legal analysis, which was described in a recent all-day deposition of the city lawyer who wrote it.

That interpretation is so novel, in fact, that the Port of Seattle said in a recent legal filing that it “has the absurd effect of making unlawful much of the ordinary and necessary business of the maritime industry.”

The technical issue at stake is the definition of “cargo.” As the city’s reasoning goes, Shell’s rig is not primarily a cargo vessel, even though it was transporting pipe to the Chukchi Sea. Therefore, it could not dock at Terminal 5, which is permitted as a cargo terminal. But many other vessels at Terminal 5 and similarly permitted terminals — including government research ships, fishing boats, even Navy vessels — aren’t primarily cargo vessels either. By the pretzel logic of the city’s interpretation, they must go, too.

It’s a very slippery slope to start judging cargo on its political merits.” - Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick

“It’s a very slippery slope to start judging cargo on its political merits,” Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick told The Seattle Times editorial board this week.

Foss Maritime, which leased Terminal 5 for Shell’s operations, and the Port were in court trying to unspool the “evict Shell” ruling. (The Polar Pioneer rig is scheduled to return this fall; its status at Terminal 5 uncertain.) City hearing examiner Anne Watanabe, who is hearing the case, should see through the absurdity.

But that’s not so certain. She already made a dubious decision to allow environmental groups to intervene in the case, but denied a similar request by maritime interests concerned about the city position’s far-reaching effect on Port operations.

Even before Watanabe rules, City Hall is trying to walk back the damage, assuring the Port that legal definitions can be tweaked, that new permits can be had.

But the damage has been done. To make a political statement about Arctic oil exploration — which was recently permitted by the Obama administration — and climate change, the mayor and his cheerleaders on the City Council put a litmus test on maritime activity. What’s next? No shipments from China until it improves its human-rights record? No genetically modified wheat shipments?

This absurdity pokes a hole in the hull of an economic backbone of the city and damages the notion that this mayor is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. When Watanabe tosses out the city’s evict-Shell analysis, Murray has some repairing to do.