Arctic-drilling support at West Seattle’s Terminal 5? After intense debate, Port Commission supports proposed Foss lease, but…

(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 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.

28 Replies to "Arctic-drilling support at West Seattle's Terminal 5? After intense debate, Port Commission supports proposed Foss lease, but..."

  • Ray January 13, 2015 (4:32 pm)

    What a sad group of representatives who refuse to make definitive decisions or statements. Just more wishy-washy non-statements where they claim they want one thing but will support the other, thereby allowing them to be both winner and “losers”.


    The faux concern about green jobs and green industry when huge parts of our local economy are anything but green (aerospace, the port itself with all the shipping to/from China, the intense refining, all of the trains supporting the port).

    As typical of Seattle politicians – hypocrites.

  • AmandaKH January 13, 2015 (5:07 pm)

    Your live tweets of the conversation are highly alarming. I await the notes with baited breath.

  • onion January 13, 2015 (5:30 pm)

    Let’s see, if we are talking green policy, then I think we should discourage air traffic at the airport and cruise ships at the cruise ship terminal, only accept newer, cleaner container ships at the cranes, and so on. And we should also discourage any cargo through our port that isn’t certified green.
    Since the facility was intended for commercial use, we already passed up the opportunity to turn this former superfund site into parkland. So I suggest we convert that land into the ultimate green commercial business — the world’s largest legal marijuana plantation.

  • M January 13, 2015 (5:55 pm)

    I do not support arctic drilling under any conditions, nor would I choose to profit from it given the choice.

  • DD January 13, 2015 (6:28 pm)

    Agree with M and am appalled at the “logic” that if drilling is inevitable, we might as well pull some local jobs out of it. Kudos to Commissioners Gregoire and Albro for having the moxie to stick to their principles. This expansive plot of land could be put out for bid to creative enterprises that might offer a “win-win”.

  • Ken January 13, 2015 (6:29 pm)

    If the Port was interested in a “green policy” then why are all the “Welcome to Terminal 5” signs still illuminated at the inspection booths? Leaving them on 24/7 cannot be an insignificant use of electricity. It seems if the terminal is not being used, they could maybe flip the switch to ‘off’ since they are not actually welcoming anyone?

  • Jw January 13, 2015 (8:15 pm)

    I was just thinking the same thing as ken. If we’re so green why leave all the lights on?

  • wscommuter January 13, 2015 (9:59 pm)

    @ DD, etc. … are you willing to give up your job to one of the folks who might otherwise get a job if we use the terminal for this purpose? I mean, just so we know – how pure is your green-ness?
    Because, ideals are lovely – I believe in ideals and think I’m as environmentally friendly as the next person. But I don’t understand rejecting these jobs for the utterly pointless concept of being philosophically against Arctic drilling. The drilling IS going to happen, no matter whether this terminal is used or not. We’re just talking about providing some meaningful employment to some folks that has zero – nada – none – impact on whether Arctic drilling occurs.
    So if you still think that the principle is worth denying these jobs, will you be giving up your job to one of those folks you think ought not to get the work you apparently think somehow immoral.

  • Joan January 13, 2015 (10:25 pm)

    Does M or DD drive a car? Take a bus? Heat their house? If not, then I’m fine with your attitude about hydrocarbons. If you do then perhaps you should stop and see what’s it’s like. How can anyone around here talk about a “green environment” when there are hundreds of thousands of vehicles stuck in traffic jams every single day.

  • Chris January 13, 2015 (10:46 pm)

    It will be interesting to see how their constituencies respond. Commissioners would be wise to look at what happened in Whatcom County to supporters of coal export.

  • West Seattleite January 13, 2015 (10:57 pm)

    Kudos to the Port on not exchanging middle class salaries for “symbolism and pointless posturing”. Keeping Foss out of T-5 with their initiatives would have accomplished NOTHING. Now we have a base that we can support many opportunities including wind and tidal energy programs. Seattle has been supporting Alaska projects for many generations from before the Klondike goldrush, up to current oil field and fishing events. Anyone seen the barge across from T-18? That is a complete production oil drill rig set to be installed next year in Alaska. Any discussion about that? People get so galvanized over one issue, and spiel the line they are thrown from others, that they ignore all around them. Eventually we will find an actual renewable energy source, but currently short of Nuclear, we need Natural Gas to tide us through.

  • Tyler January 14, 2015 (12:26 am)

    The commission needs to be reminded that the vast expanse of empty concrete (Terminal 5) exists as an unproductive asset now for exactly one reason: their failure. The Port of Seattle sat idle while the container industry continued to demand bigger cranes and deeper berths. Big ships are not a surprise – any fool with an internet connection over the last decade could have seen it coming. Had they done their job, the commission would not be saddled with such a tough debate. Had they done their job, they would not be forced to choose between temporary jobs and polar bears.

  • Chris January 14, 2015 (6:20 am)

    To the folks that say that keeping Shell from using our public facilities as a staging ground for their Alaska drilling will accomplish nothing: this “whack-a-mole” strategy can be successful and IS successful with coal export. Similar to coal export – there are a limited number of places where this can take place. If each place is mobilized and motivated to say, “No, not in my name, we can do better than expanding infrastructure for fossil fuels,” then it actually can be stopped. There is absolutely nothing to prevent each and every port option along the way to say no to this in the same way that the Port of Seattle can say no to this.

    The coal exporters started with 6 proposals – they’re down to two, and the future for those does not look bright. Additionally, those elected local officials who wanted to sell out their communities to King Coal were punished at the ballot.

    We’re in the middle of a transition to a sustainable economic prosperity that’s powered by clean and efficient energy and decoupled from the ties that have had us bound to fossil fuel interests for over a century. This transition will happen. It’s up to Seattle to decide whether we want to lead and reap the economic benefits of helping stand up another industry (see: aerospace, high tech) or whether we want to sit on the sidelines – beholden to King Coal and Big Oil.

  • Dawn January 14, 2015 (7:29 am)

    @Chris: took the words right out of my mouth. And arranged them much more eloquently than I would have.
    Thank you! : )

  • Bando January 14, 2015 (7:45 am)

    And this is what the public process looks like? Fake public notice, a fake, waffly, vote? Fake waffly “there’s nothing we can do” dialogue?

    Don’t forget these elected officials names come November.

  • AmandaKH January 14, 2015 (8:20 am)

    Beautifully, inspiringly said Chris! Thank you. I am quite alarmed at the attitude that an NDA is more important than the feedback of the Citizens. Foss holding this over the Commissioners heads (as well as ours) is tantamount to extortion. I am still unclear wether the Commissioners decided to move forward with the lease or not? Or will there be a more robust public discussion?

    • WSB January 14, 2015 (8:35 am)

      Third-to-last paragraph, “…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.”

      With the caveat that we don’t cover the Port Commission as much as we should – nor apparently does anyone; Commissioner Creighton called attention to our live-tweeting as unusual (though a Times reporter later tweeted that she had live-tweeted the commission’s morning work session on another topic) – here’s how I understand it: The commission does NOT usually vote on this kind of thing. That was brought up more than once, “we DON’T vote on leases.” (Though apparently they *could* if they so chose; one commissioner said that while they routinely delegate their authority to staff, they could take it back.) So this was NOT a voting item, but just an FYI briefing. However, because of the outpouring of public sentiment on both sides, they felt they had to at least offer “guidance.” So their guidance was, in the end, 3-2 “keep pursuing this.” What I don’t know, and will be asking by way of followup today, is what EXACTLY has to happen next before this is a done deal.
      Clear as mud? Seemed to be somewhat uncharted waters (pardon the pun) for the commission. And if anyone reading this is a longtime commission watcher and has a correction to make, please do. Thanks – TR

  • forgotmyname January 14, 2015 (8:41 am)

    Hey commissioners, if you really, and I mean, really cared, how about addressing the containers full of slave labor made Asian junk that is undermining local manufacturing or being used by big box stores to crowd out local businesses? Or the constant noise pollution from two airports within the urban footprint of the city? Or restrict the rail transport of dangerous materials that flow through the city daily? You were elected to help the people of Seattle, not to prove how progressive you are by posturing against global problems that you actions will have zero impact on. Yeah, yeah, the polar bears, great. I’m sure they’ll be happy while I listen to Boeing test planes roar over my house at all hours of the day.

  • Smokeycretin9 January 14, 2015 (9:15 am)

    AS one of your West Seattle residents and friends, I make my living directly from the Northwest Region oil refining.
    There is a lot more jobs at stake than you think. Every small locally owned machine shop in town will get a piece of anything that comes to Seattle.
    Vote your displeasure with the Federal Governemt, not the local families and economy.
    Also, before you start damning big oil companies stetting up shop here in Seattle, look out in your driveway and tell me what you are driving, look at your cell phone and tell me where the plastic comes from, and look in that cabinet in the kitchen and tell me how badly you need your Tupperware. All petro-chemical based.

  • Neighbor January 14, 2015 (9:42 am)

    We are the last generation that can stave off the catastrophic consequences of global warming.
    The children of today will look at decisions like this as nails in their coffins. We are murdering the future generations.

    drill baby drill=kill baby kill

  • Born on Alki 59 January 14, 2015 (10:42 am)

    Great post Smokeycretin9. And for those opposed to this project or petro exploration in general, please review EPACT-2005 brought to you by the EPA. Specifically look at the alternative fuel requirements. (think CNG/LNG) This project involves those fuels. Or we could just keep Fracking in the lower 48 if thats a better way to go? Oh, and if you dont like the sound of a Boeing plane overhead, I hear South Dakotas a nice place to live.

    • WSB January 14, 2015 (10:52 am)

      Before the airplane sidetrack goes any further, please note, the Port of Seattle has nothing to do with Boeing Field, the airport used by Boeing in Seattle. It is officially known as King County International Airport and the county runs it. Port of Seattle runs Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (aka Sea-Tac).

  • Toni Reineke January 14, 2015 (10:43 am)

    If you’d like to make your comments public record email:

  • dale January 14, 2015 (1:52 pm)

    With the price of oil where it is my guess is that Shell will have a hard time looking to float this rig up to the arctic even for exploratory reasons. At best, this is a marginal recovery financially. I say let Foss proceed.

  • Toni Reineke January 14, 2015 (2:19 pm)

    Oops! Gave you a misspelling of the address. Sorry! It’s

  • smokeycretin9 January 14, 2015 (4:48 pm)

    @ Dale, funny thing is…when oil prices are low, the refineries start all their maintenance. Right now the next year, our shop is looking at a crazy amount of work from Shell, BP, ect. Good for us.

  • smokeycretin9 January 14, 2015 (4:51 pm)

    ..cont. which also means that I will have extra income to spend locally, which I make a very concise effort to do in W.Seattle. Shoes will be bought at Sneakery, records will be bought at Easy Street, beers will be bought at Beer Junction. You can see, for some of your neighbors, it is good.

  • LocalLongTime January 18, 2015 (12:25 am)

    As an aside, I’ve long looked at all those tanks sitting there on the Harbor Island piers and wondered what would happen in a natural disaster. So I did something about the feeling, I emailed my representatives. I received a letter back from the SPD Office of Emergency saying basically “Shell has an emergency plan”. But we saw how BP responded to Deepwater Horizon.
    WHEN there is an earthquake here, those tanks, built on a “liquifaction zone” will be right in our drink. Hey Port of Seattle! Lets be a little proactive and relocate those tanks. Then we can talk about bringing more oil in. Remember, growth for the sake of growth is the idealogy of a cancer cell. We (as in West Seattle) don’t “need jobs” or “need more development”. In fact, I believe we need to stop developing and expanding and pushing so we can take stock and take responsibility for the mess we’ve already created.
    Prime example: You just wait to see the traffic on the bridge after all these cranes leave the neighborhood.

Sorry, comment time is over.