A 400-foot-long drilling rig, a key piece of equipment in Shell’s efforts to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska, arrived in Port Angeles early Friday. The rig is a focal point for protests by environmentalists opposed to Arctic drilling.
PORT ANGELES, Clallam County —
An eight-legged drilling rig that Shell will use to explore for offshore Arctic oil arrived here Friday at dawn, met by protesters in kayaks.
The 400-foot-long Polar Pioneer is a powerful symbol of Shell’s determination to find oil reserves off Alaska’s North Slope, a quest pursued through years of delays, maritime mishaps and multibillion-dollar investments.
If successful, Shell’s efforts could eventually provide new oil for the trans-Alaska pipeline and boost Seattle’s role as a maritime hub for offshore development.
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The rig also offers a potent rallying point for environmentalists opposed to the drilling because of the risks of Arctic oil spills and the prospects for developing major new fossil-fuel reserves that could contribute to climate change.
“We’re here today to give Shell a cold welcome. We don’t want them here. We don’t want them in the Arctic … desecrating a very magical place,” John Sellers, of Vashon Island, said Friday morning before he took to the water in his baby-blue kayak.
The Polar Pioneer crossed the Pacific from Malaysia aboard a transport ship, the Blue Marlin. It will be set in the water, and within the next two weeks is scheduled to be towed to Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle. There, it will be stocked with supplies before a long, slow tow north to drill in the Chukchi Sea some 60 miles off Alaska’s North Slope.
While the rig is in Seattle, an activist coalition organizing online at Shellno.org is calling for three days of protests culminating in “a mass direct action” on May 18.
On the website, supporters can take a “Pledge of Resistance” to “engage in acts of peaceful civil disobedience.” Some veterans of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle are assisting in the training of activists.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith says the oil company “respects everyone’s rights to voice their opinions about the Arctic. We just hope they do so safely, and within the boundaries of the law.”
If the final permits are obtained, the Chukchi Sea drilling will be carried out by the Polar Pioneer and a drill ship, the Noble Discoverer. Those vessels will be accompanied by more than 20 support vessels.
Shell’s summer goal is to establish two wells at depths where oil-bearing formations are found.
“We have reason to believe that … offshore Alaska, and the Chukchi, in particular, is home to some of the most prolific undeveloped hydrocarbon basins remaining in the world,” Smith said. “But the only way to know that, of course, is to drill.”
For Shell, this new effort comes after a fumbled season of summer drilling in 2012. A drilling rig, the Kulluk, went aground. A Shell contractor, Noble Drilling, pleaded guilty to eight felony counts for environmental and other violations related to the drill ship Noble Discoverer.
This year, as Noble readies to again operate the Noble Discoverer in the offshore Arctic, Smith said the contractor has accepted responsibility for what went wrong and made changes. There also have been major improvements to the drill vessel.
The Polar Pioneer is operated by Transocean, an offshore-drilling company that in 2013 agreed to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties for violations of the federal Clean Water Act during BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Smith said Shell will have four lines of defense for combating any potential blowout of its Arctic drilling rig, and that the company has made major improvements preparing for the drill season.
“This is not the same program that we had in 2012,” Smith said. “We have taken a critical look at all the experiences we have had in Alaska over the last several years and this latest exploration plan takes that learning into account.”
If the summer work goes well, it could set the stage for a prolonged period of exploration and development.
At least for the next two years, Shell plans to base much of its Arctic fleet at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5.
Smith said the choice of terminals reflected Seattle’s longtime role as a support center for development of Alaska’s oil and gas, and that Washington state has prospered from the relationship.
“Are there other choices? Probably. But we chose Seattle,” Smith said.
Environmental groups are challenging the two-year lease agreement that the Port of Seattle signed with Foss Maritime. In a case pending in King County Superior Court, they have asked a judge to void the lease, in part, because the Port did not conduct an environmental review.
Activists organizing the May protests note the hazards of oil spills in the Arctic, and also are making climate change one of their center-stage issues. They cite a study, published in Nature in January, that found new oil development in the Arctic is in conflict with efforts to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
They also hope to build on the momentum of other campaigns that have sought to block the development of new terminals to export coal to Asia and limit tanker trains of oil that now bring Bakken shale crude to West Coast refineries.
“I have people just coming up to me that I don’t know in business suits, basically saying, ‘What do I do to do civil disobedience on this issue? This is crazy,’ ” said Emily Johnston, a Seattle woman who is working with the coalition organizing the protests. “So, definitely people are pissed off.”