(UPDATED 9:54 PM with chronicle of how the discussion unfolded)
(October 2014 photo by Peter West Carey, shared via Twitter)
The issue of whether to pursue a lease with Foss Maritime, temporarily taking part of closed-for-modernization Terminal 5 to support Shell‘s Arctic drilling operations (here’s our previous report), wasn’t supposed to be up for a vote; on this afternoon’s Seattle Port Commission agenda, it was just a briefing.
But after more than 20 public commenters at the meeting, held at Sea-Tac Airport, and intense discussion between commissioners, Commissioner Courtney Gregoire said she believed they had to give staff direction – and so they did, not via an actual vote, but via opinions: Three commissioners (Stephanie Bowman, John Creighton, and Bill Bryant) said basically, they’re not in favor of Arctic drilling, but not allowing this lease to go forward wouldn’t make a difference, so they feel they have to support it, given the hundreds of jobs and ~$28 million revenue it would bring. Two (Gregoire and Tom Albro) said they felt the port, with its “green gateway” mission, should not become the “homeport of Shell Arctic drilling support.”
But beyond a decision on this matter, commissioners did voice support for coming up with a port “energy policy” that could set guidelines for any future decisions along these lines, and possibly other actions that the port could take to support a clean-energy future, beyond policies and procedures it’s already implemented.
We’ve been monitoring the entire discussion, held at Sea-Tac Airport, via live video, and live tweeting at @westseattleblog. If you don’t use Twitter, you can see our three hours of tweets (interspersed with a few other stories) in the box below – reverse-chronological order, just scroll through:
And we’re writing up notes in a more-conventional manner to add here as soon as we can.
ADDED 9:54 PM: Scroll or click ahead for our narrative:
Public comment on this issue apparently has been intense, just in the five days since it was first made public, when the briefing paper was posted online as part of the meeting agenda, and a story appeared at SeattleTimes.com Thursday night. One commissioner alluded to 150 e-mails. And when the comment period opened during today’s meeting, before the briefing, 23 people spoke. By our informal tally, it was a 2-1 split, supporters to opponents. The support came primarily from people identifying themselves as part of the maritime-business community; several of the opponents identified themselves as environmental advocates.
At least three people who offered comments were West Seattleites – David Devilbiss, identifying himself as a West Seattle homeowner and resident whose “family and many neighbors” make their living in the maritime trade, saying his livelihood had diminished since Terminal 5’s shutdown last summer. Max Vekich, an ILWU representative, said the members he represents “would be glad to go back to work” at T-5, and that he views the proposal as “a compatible use, a necessary step to keep that terminal alive and keep jobs here.” And Peter Goldman, who identified himself as an environmental lawyer and longtime West Seattleite, noted that the Port’s slogan is “where a sustainable world is headed,” but, he said, “I’m here to make the case that the port enabling Shell to base Arctic drilling (here) is not where a sustainable world is headed.”
Among the speakers the arguments were impassioned on both sides – for opponents, not wanting the Port of Seattle to be complicit in any way in Arctic drilling; Brian Manning from Greenpeace declared, “We cannot afford to extract oil from the Arctic at all.”
But others countered that the loss of jobs is what would be unaffordable. Vince O’Halloran from the Sailors Union of the Pacific contended that the project would not be an environmental negative, because Northwest companies such as Foss “are the most environmentally forward companies in the country and in the world.”
Yet some, including Sasha Pollack of the Washington Environmental Council, contended that “the choice between jobs and the environment is a false one.”
After the public-comment period, the commission had a few other items to get through before it got back to this. Part of that involved a complementary, though longer-range, project – deepening the port’s waterways. Seaport director Linda Styrk said that the modernization/deepening needs are always shifting – as recently as two years ago, she said, they were told that they wouldn’t see ships here bigger than 10,000 TEUs; “now we’re told 14,000 TEUs” are a possibility, so, they’re focusing on scalability. While the channel-deepening project wouldn’t be done until 2025, deepening of the berths could happen sooner, and the vessels would have some leeway maneuvering out on high tides.
Commissioner Bowman wondered what could be done to speed it up, since during a recent Asian tour, it was made clear to them that they need to “get as ‘big-ship ready’ as fast as possible.” Commissioner Albro cited a report saying there’s unserved demand right now with those “big ships” coming on line.
That segued into the Terminal 5 proposal. First, Styrk went through what was in the briefing memo:
She pointed out that being a “caretaker” for T-5 while it’s idle is costing $2 million a year. She recapped the Port’s solicitation of interim possibilities of the terminal and then brought up Paul Stevens, CEO of Foss.
He opened with a declaration that “Foss would not engage in a project that would put our reputation at risk. … (The issue) of Arctic drilling is between Shell and the federal government. The issue is whether we and Seattle enjoy the benefit of the jobs this will reap.” He also said that Shell is “at the end of its decisionmaking process and we are out of time.”
That was likely a surprise to some onlookers, because this hadn’t come out publicly until last Thursday. It was explained that, under terms of a non-disclosure agreement, it had been kept under wraps while they were talking – Foss said for them, it was potentially a competitive issue – and Shell is making a decision at the end of this week.
He offered a few notes about the plan – 24 Shell vessels, a two-year lease with two 1-year options for extension, and hopes of other work, such as the B.C. gas project (they’re bidding for it and it’s no sure bet, it was stressed) and possibly moving aggregate for a Sea-Tac Airport runway project. “Like a shopping center, we’re looking for a primary tenant here so we can draw others,” Stevens explained – and the Foss project would be that primary tenant, for starters.
Some concern about Shell arose at that point, including a mention of the New York Times Magazine report on the ill-fated Kulluk, one of two Shell drilling vessels – along with the Noble Discoverer – that spent time here in 2012. Stevens said that Shell is “approaching this (drilling) season completely differently than they did in 2012.”
That’s when Gregoire, for the first time, said she views this as more than “an issue about signing a lease with Foss” – but more about whether Seattle will be homeport for Shell’s Alaska oil drilling.
The work will go somewhere else if Seattle declines it, Stevens reiterated, adding that even if all goes as Shell hopes, “it will be 10 to 12 years before a drop of oil comes out of the Arctic.” In a bigger picture, he suggested that rejecting this would end a century-plus tradition of Seattle serving as a “steppingstone” to Alaska industry.
A port staffer explained that federal reviews continue, with a decision point by March, and then, if the Obama Administration says the leases can move forward, then Shell (or any other company) would have to submit an exploration plan.
Seaport director Styrk interjected that along with the local jobs expected from the project, “one thing particularly exciting to me, having been a seagoing officer, is that this generates hundreds of U.S. merchant mariner jobs, and those are harder and harder to come by. The majority are expected to be dispatched locally.” She repeated that “this is the only current, tangible … prospect we have right now.”
Then the commissioners spoke. Gregoire spoke of the commission’s commitment to growing jobs and to being a “green gateway,” but “those values come to clash as we talk about this project today.” She said that she couldn’t accept being told “‘you have no authority over drilling in the Arctic, it’s not your role to consider these things’. … As a public agency, we are responsible for stewarding our public assets for the public good.” She went on to list some of what’s in the area of the Arctic that Shell is targeting, home to polar bears, for example, and “over 1,000 miles from a Coast Guard station.”
She thought a “broader conversation” was in order, given the 150 e-mails in 24 hours; “there has not been enough time to have this conversation robustly with our community.”
Albro started by saying he agreed with Gregoire. Yes, jobs are needed, he said, but so are “a lot of things” – his list included completing Highway 509 and not building a sports arena in SODO; what he said he feared was being “out of synch with the broader populace of King County and Seattle,” who, he believed, is mostly opposed to Arctic drilling, which he said he would ban “if I could.”
Next, Creighton, who acknowledged the concerns and warnings about climate change, but: “Whether or not we approve this lease today will not stop Arctic drilling.” He wondered where the line would be drawn if the commission rejected this on principle – might they tell grain-terminal operators they can’t deal in genetically modified (GMO) grain? Might they tell fishing crews they can’t catch certain types of fish? His larger point was to find other ways that the port could support ecological sustainability – perhaps support a carbon tax, support the governor’s initiatives, write letters to President Obama on issues. Bottom line, he said, “By denying this lease, we’re doing nothing to stop Arctic drilling … if we take down the sign saying we’re open for business at the Port of Seattle, then business will go elsewhere.”
Bowman said she supports what Creighton said. They told staff to go out and find an interim use (for Terminal 5), and suddenly, find themselves saying “Oh, but not THAT”? The port could have an energy policy, she said, but it would have to be formed in discussions with various stakeholder groups, including environmental and business constituencies.
Bryant aligned with Bowman and Creighton’s points, saying that rejecting the Foss lease “would be an act of political symbolism but it would be at the expense of the middle class, and that must stop.” Like Creighton, Bryant suggested other actions would directly affect the environment – Duwamish River habitat restoration, continued work on the Port’s clean-air and clean-fuel programs, “expanding our approach to stormwater,” transitioning the Port’s fleet to alternative fuels.
Gregoire and Albro then made one more try at convincing their fellow commissioners to at least stop down for a “robust discussion with the public,” as she put it. And that’s where, even though this was intended to be just a briefing – the commission, referred to multiple times as a “part-time” body, does not traditionally take votes on matters like these – it was suggested they did need to be on the record with “clear guidance,” in Albro’s words. So after a break, the commissioners returned. Albro suggested a vote on requiring commission approval for any interim use of T-3. It didn’t happen; instead, it was decided that the opinions already voiced – Bowman, Bryant, and Creighton for going ahead with the lease, Albro and Gregoire against it – stood as a majority commission opinion.
“This is the toughest decision we’ve had to make,” Bowman said afterward. She framed it as a decision in keeping with what’s currently “status quo” while offering that if the commission comes up with guidelines for the future, “we won’t have a status quo, we’ll have a policy.”
What’s next? Foss would have to seal the deal with Shell, and with the port. The briefing document said that if all that happened, work at T-5 could start in a matter of weeks.