• Giant Arctic oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer docks in Seattle

    By: KIRO 7 STAFF

    Updated:

    SEATTLE - The Polar Pioneer oil rig docked Thursday at Port of Seattle's Terminal 5 , which is facing controversy over its agreement with Royal Dutch Shell to service Arctic drilling vessels. 

    Quick Facts:

    • Polar Pioneer entered Elliott Bay shortly after 2 p.m. 
    • "Kayaktivists" are greeting the vessel with "Shell No" signs.
    •  Shell said they're confident they can drill safely in Arctic.
    • At 355 feet tall, it is half the height of the Space Needle. 

    It started the voyage from Port Angeles 1:30 a.m. Thursday and is moving at a speed of about 5 knots or 6 miles an hour. It is expected to arrive in Seattle this afternoon or early evening.  

    It will be part of the Seattle skyline for at least eight months of the year for the next two years.  

    See photos of the Polar Pioneer moving toward Seattle.

    The Polar Pioneer has become a hugely visible symbol of all that environmentalists deplore -- drilling for and burning oil.

    Environment activist Fred Felleman said fear of exacerbating climate change is a top concern.

    “The volume of expected resource [oil] to be found down there would have catastrophic effects on the climate. Which is the most important concern from a global perspective,” Felleman said.

    Seattle, like it or not, becomes Shell's Arctic base

    Activists paddling out in kayaks to meet the rig off Seattle's picturesque waterfront said it's their moment to stand against opening a new frontier of fossil fuel exploration.

    "Unless people get out there and put themselves on the front lines and say enough is enough, than nothing will ever change," said Jordan Van Voast, 55, an acupuncturist who was going out on the water to confront the Polar Pioneer. "I'm hopeful that people are waking up."

    A few people in tiny plastic boats, dwarfed by a 400-foot-long structure rising nearly 300 feet above the water. The image suggests how outmatched Shell's opponents have been as they try to keep the petroleum giant from continuing its $6 billion effort to open new oil and gas reserves in one of the world's most dangerous maritime environments.

    But environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest are sensing a shift in the politics that surround energy production, and have mobilized against a series of projects that would transform the region into a gateway for crude oil and coal exports to Asia.

    "These proposals have woken a sleeping giant in the Northwest," said Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute, a liberal Seattle think tank. "It has unleashed this very robust opposition movement."

    <div id="fb-root"></div><script>(function(d, s, id) {  var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];  if (d.getElementById(id)) return;  js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id;  js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.3";  fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));</script><div class="fb-video" data-allowfullscreen="true" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/KIRO7Seattle/videos/997001493652937/"><div class="fb-xfbml-parse-ignore"><blockquote cite="/KIRO7Seattle/videos/997001493652937/"><a href="/KIRO7Seattle/videos/997001493652937/"></a><p>&quot;Chief Seattle Is Watching.&quot;  Kayaktivists&quot; with Greenpeace greet the controversial oil rig Polar Pioneer as it entered Elliot Bay this afternoon -- saying #ShellNo. Have you seen the giant vessel? It&#039;s hard to miss from the waterfront. &gt;&gt; kiro.tv/PolarPioneerPhotos</p>Posted by <a href="https://www.facebook.com/KIRO7Seattle">KIRO 7 Eyewitness News</a> on Thursday, May 14, 2015</blockquote></div></div>

    Shell still needs other permits from state and federal agencies, including one to actually drill offshore in the Arctic and another to dispose of wastewater. But it's moving ahead meanwhile, using the Port of Seattle to load drilling rigs and a fleet of support vessels with supplies and personnel before spending the brief Arctic summer in the Chukchi Sea, which stretches north from the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

    Port of Seattle’s decision to lease Terminal 5

    The Port of Seattle’s decision to lease Terminal 5 to Shell Oil’s arctic fleet has become a highly visible symbol in the battle against climate change.

    The passion showed at Wednesday's Port Commission hearing -- dozens jammed the chamber for three hours of testimony.  They were worried not only about the climate, but about Alaska's environment.

    However, a spokesman for Shell said they're confident they can drill safely and that they've planned for the worst.

    “There is no company in the world that has assembled the arctic oil spill response and containment assets that Shell has for Alaska and we look forward to never using them."

    Foss Maritime of Seattle also revealed its long-term plans for the Polar Pioneer to make a home of Terminal 5 for the winter, for years.

    The company’s lease extends for two years, and since the rig would only explore for oil in the Arctic from June to October, the company plans to store the Polar Explorer at Terminal 5 for up to 8 months at a time.

    Foss’ head of security, Erin Pierson, told KIRO 7 the company is prepared for protests.  The Coast Guard has insturcted protesters to stay 500 yards away.

    “We're definitely ready, she said. “We've put in a lot of hard work and effort to create security plans and make sure everything is safe and secure for everyone working here and everyone in the city."

    Foss Maritime and Shell say 417 well-paying jobs will be employed to outfit the rig.  As many as 100 more longshoremen will also be needed.

    Oil rig supporters see economic benefits

    Before the oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer arrived at Terminal 5, workers could be seen making final preparations yesterday.

    Foss says they’re just a fraction of the people it plans to employ servicing Shell's Arctic fleet in Seattle.

    “Four hundred, 17 people have gone to work as a result of this project so far,” said Foss spokesman Paul Queary.

    He says once the Polar Pioneer is at the dock, more than 100 longshoremen will be employed. Others workers will be hired for support, even catering.

    We went to King County Labor Council President Dave Freiboth to ask how good most of these jobs are.

    “If you want a number, these are $50,000-a-year jobs,” Freiboth said. “These are good jobs with benefits and real retirements.”

    Foss plans to pay $13 million in rent to the Port of Seattle over the next two years. And says that for every job created, another 1.6 jobs is created in the community at large. 

    “I think that people are realizing there is a substantial amount of economic benefit. And good jobs that are coming as a result of this,” Queary said.

    Freiboth says labor supports the Living Wage Green Jobs of the future, but that politicians have let to deliver on that promise.

    “To make statements opposing jobs without giving these workers a clear path to some sort of alternative green employment is disingenuous," Freiboth said.

    Still critics maintain that climate change endangers everyone’s job and that pumping more oil makes it worse.

    Exploratory drilling and enviromental concern

    Hurricane-force winds and 50-foot seas can quickly threaten even the sturdiest ships in the seas off Alaska. But Shell cleared a major bureaucratic hurdle Monday when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, after taking public comments and reviewing voluminous reports, approved the multi-year exploration plan.

    If exploratory drilling goes well, Shell plans to invest billions more in infrastructure to open this new frontier, building pipelines under the ocean and onto the tundra of Alaska's North Slope, along with roads, air strips and other facilities.

    Shell's last effort to do exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean also left from Seattle, and ended badly. The Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk — a rig Shell had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to customize— were stranded by equipment failures in terrible weather, and the Coast Guard barely rescued the Kulluk's crew. Federal investigations resulted in guilty pleas and fines for rig owner Noble Drilling.

    The Kulluk ended up on a scrap heap in China. Shell is leasing the Polar Pioneer in its stead, again backed by the Noble Discoverer. But Shell says it gained has vital experience, and can safely drill on its leases in the Chukchi Sea, as well as the Beaufort Sea, an even more remote stretch north of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge where it also has leases.

    CLICK HERE to read what is at stake in debate over Arctic drilling. 

    Shell spokesman Curtis Smith called Monday's approval "is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan."

    Officials in Alaska have welcomed the drilling, even flying to Seattle this week to lobby for Shell's plan. Labor groups representing port workers noted that Foss Maritime is employing more than 400 people already to service the Shell fleet.

    Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed tough pollution limits on state industries and raised concerns about oil trains using the state's rails. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, for his part, is strongly against hosting Shell's fleet, warning that the port could face daily fines because it lacks the proper permit.

    Those fines would amount to no more than $500 a day for the port — a tiny drop in a very large barrel if Shell, one of the world's largest companies, manages to recover billions of gallons of oil from the Arctic Ocean.

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