Twenty-four kayaking protesters were removed from the water by the Coast Guard, as Shell’s massive drilling rig left Seattle on Monday morning to explore for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska.
In an early-morning departure marked by the detention of 24 kayaking protesters, the Polar Pioneer drill rig on Monday ended a monthlong stay in Seattle and began its three-week journey north to explore for oil in Chukchi Sea.
While in Seattle, the Polar Pioneer was stocked with supplies that it will need for the brief summer season and prepared for the task of drilling during the brief Arctic summer season.
Shell hopes that this summer will be the first in a string of successful exploration seasons that could lead to the discovery of a major new oil field off Alaska’s North Slope. Shell officials have hoped to use Puget Sound as a base of operations, and they have received strong support from the local maritime industry.
But Shell’s efforts are bitterly opposed by environmentalists concerned about the oil-spill risks and developing major new Arctic oil fields that contribute to climate change.
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Seattle has emerged as focal point of their actions.
On Monday morning, protesters were on the water as the Polar Pioneer departed from Seattle’s Terminal 5. Also on hand were the Coast Guard, as well as personnel from the Seattle police and fire departments, Port of Seattle police, King County Sheriffs Office and the Washington State Patrol.
The Coast Guard designated a 500-yard safety zone around the Polar Pioneer while it was on the move. When kayakers Monday intruded into that zone, they were removed from their kayaks and taken to the Coast Guard base at Pier 36.
Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien was among the protesters taken to the base. O’Brien and 23 other people were issued notices of violation and then released with their equipment. O’Brien said he was fined $250.
O’Brien said the Coast Guard was “very professional. Really treated everyone with respect. The beef isn’t between the police force and the folks in the kayaks today. It’s really between the people of this region, the people of this planet and what Shell Oil is trying to do to the planet.”
Early Monday evening, some protesters were gathering in Port Townsend and making plans for a new action there, but later pulled back during rough weather, the Coast Guard said.
Shell first drilled in the Arctic waters off Alaska in 1989 and 1990, then resumed exploration in a troubled 2012 summer season. One drilling rig ran aground off Kodiak while attempting a return to Seattle. Another contractor, Noble Drilling US, became the subject of a federal criminal investigation that resulted in a guilty plea to 8 felony counts and an agreement to pay $12.2 million in fines.
While the Polar Pioneer was in Seattle during the past month, the Coast Guard conducted repeated inspections. On Sunday, the Coast Guard issued a certificate of compliance indicating that the rig passed muster with safety and environmental procedures, according to Lt. Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman.
“Over the last couple of weeks we have been on board a couple of times. It’s been a work in progress,” Warr said. “ It’s typical that in a vessel like this you are going to have some deficiencies, and we work with them and let them know what they are.”
Ward said that a second drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, also has received a Coast Guard certificate of compliance.
But before Shell actually begins drilling in the Arctic, some final permits and letters of authorization are still required from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman.
On Monday, the Polar Pioneer, under tow, and support vessels, made their way slowly through Puget Sound. They were accompanied by Coast Guard vessels keeping an eye out for further protests.
“If Burger works, then it opens up the whole area,” said Ann Pickard, executive vice president for Royal Dutch Shell, in an earlier interview with The Seattle Times.
The kayakers’ protest of the Polar Pioneer’s departure is the latest in a series of high-profile action by environmentalists who are opposed to Shell’s new effort to drill in the Arctic waters off Alaska’s North Slope due to
The giant rig’s ocean voyage will take it through the North Pacific, then into the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast and then finally the Chukchi Sea.
In the Chukchi, it will join the Noble Discoverer and a support fleet to explore the oil potential of the Burger Prospect. This is a geological formation that Shell hopes holds a giant oil field that might eventually yield up to 1 million barrels of oil a day.
The kayak protest was the latest in a series of actions by environmentalists. These included an April high-seas action when six activists climbed aboard the Polar Pioneer while it was in the Pacific Ocean en route to Washington, and perched on the rig for nearly a week.
Kayakers greeted the Polar Pioneer as it arrived off Port Angeles in April, then organized a series of protests and efforts to try to disrupt drilling preparations while the rig was in Seattle.
Shell also has received a cold shoulder from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
Murray said he does not want the oil company to base its fleet here, and city officials have said that Shell’s fleet activities at Terminal 5 violate the current land-use permit.
Ann Pickard, executive vice president for Royal Dutch Shell, has said that from a logistical standpoint, Seattle remains Shell’s first choice for an offseason home port for the Polar Pioneer.
But she noted that, “If Seattle doesn’t want us … I think we need to think about where this business goes.”