The Fuse

Seattle’s Kayaktivists Reveal Oil Industry’s Ongoing Public Relations Problem

by R. Kress | May 29, 2015

After all, how outraged do people need to be to take on an oil rig in an inflatable boat?

Peaceful but outraged protesters gathered by the hundreds at a seaport terminal in Seattle in recent weeks to voice their opposition to Arctic oil drilling. Together, they marched on the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5, effectively shutting it to traffic for several hours. Come this summer, that terminal will send off Royal Dutch Shell’s 400-foot drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, for the coast of Alaska. It will be the first of two Shell rigs that will use Seattle as a base of their Arctic Drilling operations this year.

Activists began their protest in mid-May with what they called an “Unwelcoming” when the giant floating rig first arrived in Seattle. Taking to kayaks and other small boats over the weekend, the aptly-named “Paddle in Seattle” protest went amphibious. Tweeting under the hashtag “ShellNo” and calling themselves Kayaktivists, images of the demonstration went viral on social media.

The optics of the kayak protest were both visually stunning and telling of the oil industry’s ongoing public relations problem. After all, how outraged do people need to be to take on an oil rig in an inflatable boat?

Emily Johnston, protest organizer and Communications Coordinator for climate watchdog Seattle350 was one of the first people to hit the water in a kayak last Thursday when the rig arrived. She tells the Fuse that her fellow protesters may have already delayed the Polar Pioneer on its mission to head north, although that’s not the sole goal of their operation. For Johnston, it’s about highlighting and raising awareness about Seattle’s particularly strategic role in her group’s fight against arctic drilling and domestic extraction of fossil fuels.

“Seattle can really serve as the bottleneck—the cork in the bottle—in terms of impact,” Johnston tells The Fuse. “If the fossil fuel companies want to get that fuel out of the American West, they have to come through us.”

The resistance to allowing Seattle to be Shell’s base of Arctic operations is largely sparked by public fear about Arctic drilling. However, it has served as a catalyst for a larger question in the community about whether or not the Port of Seattle should be allowed to lease to Shell at all.

“This is a taxpayer-supported, public port. The port commissioners are voted on,” Johnston explains. “This involves the citizens of Seattle in a really direct way.”

When news first broke early this year that the Port of Seattle would be leasing to Shell, many locals expressed concern. A group of citizens including former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn published a passionately worded op-ed calling on the port commissioners to reconsider their lease to the oil major.   

The current Mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, has also taken public issue with the Port’s plan. Earlier this month, he said that the permit for Terminal 5 does not include the “long-term moorage and maintenance of Arctic drilling equipment.” The statement, made at a fundraiser for a renewable energy non-profit, elicited a roomful of applause.

Still, Mayor Murray’s word has not changed the fact that the Polar Pioneer is now docked at Terminal 5 and another rig, the Noble Discoverer, is on the way. In the case of the latter, past environmental setbacks have been a key rallying cry of demonstrators: Late last year, the Noble Discoverer was slammed with $12 million in fines and felony convictions for violating water pollution laws. It is set to dock in Seattle in the coming weeks or months before heading north.

If protesters, in Kayaks or otherwise, are able to delay rig deployment, they could feasibly derail Shell’s entire 2015 operation.

For Arctic drilling operations, Shell has a narrow window of opportunity during summer months when low levels of sea ice permit industry operations. If protesters, in Kayaks or otherwise, are able to delay the deployment of the Polar Pioneer or Noble Discoverer, they could feasibly derail Shell’s entire 2015 operation. This would ultimately cost the company billions of dollars on a project that has already seen years of delays and massive budget overruns.

Earlier this month, Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden was forced to address the increasingly visible Artic drilling controversy on the heels of the Paddle in Seattle. The issue even eclipsed what would have been the main talking point at the first shareholder meeting since the company announced its $70 billion merger with British energy company BG Group back in April.

In an appeal to the climate protesters, Van Beuren reiterated Shell’s history as the first oil major to affirm the causality between CO2 emissions and global warming. In response to the uproar raised by the Paddle in Seattle, he told shareholders and gathered press that the company was managing associated drilling risks down to a level he called “negligible.” Over the past five years, Shell has worked to bolster its sustainability efforts, devoting around $1 billion annually to research and development of alternative energy technologies and innovations. Furthermore, the company has collaborated closely with the Obama administration to incorporate risk-mitigation protocols into its Arctic drilling equipment.

After years of iterative developments, Royal Dutch Shell was recently granted conditional approval by the Obama administration to drill in the Chukchi Sea. It’s a complicated swath of water, as parts of it are still off-limits to oil exploration. In January of this year, President Obama announced a plan to cut back on drilling permits in certain areas of the Arctic—including areas of the Polar Pioneer’s destination, the Chuckchi Sea—while opening up new large portions of the Atlantic from Georgia to Virginia and in previously closed areas of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

For protest organizer Johnston, the answer is in finding a way to encourage and inspire the American people so that they lead the way to a more diversified energy future.

“We need a World War II type of effort to encourage people to do their part. So that it’s a moral obligation,” Johnston says. “People need to feel like they’re not just being asked to change a light bulb, because that’s not inspiring.”

Meanwhile, for oil companies, what’s happening in Seattle is evidence that even with a decade of development, billions of dollars of investment, and regulatory approval, negative public opinion and local opposition remains a critical factor and can hamstring projects. For now, organizers there are back in the planning phases, getting ready for what’s next. Until they hit the water once again, Johnston says they’re keeping the political pressure on behind the scenes—and on land.