Farewell Polar Pioneer

Shell's Polar Pioneer preparing to leave the Port of Seattle, bound for the Chukchi Sea

Shell’s Polar Pioneer preparing to leave the Port of Seattle, bound for the Chukchi Sea

Royal Dutch Shell–yes, the same company that was going to destroy the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena and Nass Rivers with coalbed methane extraction–towed it’s arctic drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, out of Seattle yesterday. Based on their performance with the Kulluk (ran aground under tow off Kodiak Island) and other drilling platforms (one caught fire in an Alaskan port), I won’t be surprised if some mechanical breakdown or lapse of judgement stops them en route to the arctic. We just have to hope it happens before the thing is connected to the seafloor and pumping oil.

A couple more thoughts: There has been some criticism of the “kayaktivism” that Seattlites have engaged in during the month that the Polar Pioneer was in port here. It’s been said that these protests do little to stop oil exploration in the arctic. Some have even stated that people in kayaks with signs surrounding the rig are wasting their time. I disagree.

We’ve seen a number of these on-the-water protests, and while they’ve done little to stop or slow preparations aboard the drilling rig, they draw plenty of media attention and inspire further activism. Last week, police had to use power tools to cut apart a group of grandmothers who chained themselves together to block supplies from reaching the docks. And the number of people in kayaks swelled. When you have a City Council member arrested in protest, as we did a few days ago, people notice. When local politicians, including our Mayor, are motivated to work political channels in an effort to keep Shell from doing their work here, word gets out. This is just the most visible side of the battle to stop arctic oil exploration, and it’s about citizens who don’t want their city to participate in that drilling.

I did have an interesting conversation with a young woman who was preparing to join the waterborne protest from here on the Island. I asked if her group was going to paddle all the way over to Seattle, and she said some would, but that a number were taking power boats. I wonder if anyone in the group saw the irony in burning gas to get to the anti-oil-drilling protest?

Meanwhile, the less visible work to stop Shell from using Seattle as it’s oil-rig maintenance port, and in a larger sense, to stop arctic drilling in general, continues. But the kayak protests brought the issue to a wider audience, raised awareness, showed politicians how important the issue is, and helped bring in donors to the cause. That’s hardly a waste of time.

To Our New Secretary Of The Interior


April 17th, 2013

Dear Secretary Jewell—

First of all, congratulations on your Senate confirmation. As someone who makes a living  in the outdoor recreation industry, I am excited to have “one of our own” making the tough decisions about how this country uses its public land and water. Though I’m sure you won’t lack for various interests expressing their hopes for your tenure, I thought here at the beginning, I might presume to offer a few thoughts:

As you know, when giant corporations set their minds to something, it’s not easy to hold them back. But last year, in Alaska, they did a pretty good job of it themselves. Shell’s Kulluk oil rig, carrying more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, ran aground off Kodiak in rough seas on New Year’s Eve. Their other oil rig, the Noble Discoverer, dragged anchor and nearly ran aground last summer, then caught fire in port. Throughout 2012, Shell’s Arctic effort was repeatedly cited and fined for problems with pollution-control systems and illegal fluid discharges. Their spill-response barge failed inspection before it even made it to Alaska.

These events took place following BP’s epic disaster in the Gulf, at a time when the very future of offshore Arctic oil exploitation was at stake. Knowing they were under immense scrutiny, we can assume Shell put all of its best resources and finest minds on the job, and well…the results speak for themselves.

Secretary Jewell, I humbly request that when considering the future of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, you ask yourself: If oil companies can’t even get exploratory equipment into place without accidents, problems and violations, how will they perform when their platforms are connected to the sea bottom pumping millions of gallons of oil and the inevitable Arctic storm blows in or the pack ice pushes through? Is there any reason to believe they’ll handle this better than the far simpler task of towing the Kulluk? Or anchoring the Noble Discoverer? Or, for that matter, operating the Deepwater Horizon?

Another decision you will be facing shortly is whether or not natural gas companies should be required to disclose the chemicals they’re injecting into the ground for hydraulic fracturing. The gas industry argues that the process is safe, and that disclosure of secret formulas would create “unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles.” Hmm…

If the chemicals they’re injecting beneath our homes and watersheds are so safe, why not tell us what they are?

Secretary Jewell, I propose we let them off the hook. Tell the gas companies they’re free to keep chemical formulas shrouded in secrecy on one condition: Company officers and shareholders must consume—in a public forum—one cup of their proprietary fracking liquid. I realize this might sound medieval, but it’s really a win-win for all parties involved. If the gas companies agree, local residents can feel better about groundwater issues in fracking areas. If they refuse, well…then we know that federal oversight—including “bureaucratic obstacles”—is exactly what the industry requires.

I know you have a lot on your plate, most of it the unenviable task of finding a balance between corporate profits and protection of our public resources. The sage grouse decision will not be easy, pitting domestic energy exploration against an iconic species of the American West. The Pebble Mine, should it be approved, could yield billions of dollars worth of precious metals, but would place the world’s largest open-pit mine, with all its habitat destruction and toxic chemicals, at the headwaters of the last great salmon watersheds. And of course, we’re just scratching the surface of your new reality here.

But I also ask that you look at some internal issues as well. When we citizens paid for the $320 million Elwha Dam removal project, it was a great victory for wild salmon and all who love the idea of free-flowing rivers. But the fact that the Park Service, which now falls under your leadership, saw fit to use $16 million of that budget to build a new fish hatchery goes beyond a colossal waste of taxpayer money. All the best available science in recent years shows that the mere presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild salmon recovery. Which, last time I checked, was one of the primary stated goals of the dam removal in the first place.

Building and operating this hatchery, in what’s supposed to be the crown jewel of wild salmon recovery, is what the old timers refer to as shooting one’s self in the foot. It’s as if the Federal Government spent $300+ million on a lung cancer prevention program, and allocated $16 million of the budget to building a new cigarette factory.

I understand the hatchery is already built, but I ask that you look into this issue and find an operating solution that will help the Elwha Dam removal project meet it’s stated goals. More importantly, I hope you can work to keep this kind of gross misappropriation of public money from happening again as we work to recover natural watersheds around the country.

Thank you for your time and consideration, Secretary Jewell. I think I speak for a majority of your fellow outdoor recreationists and businesses when I say we are proud of your appointment and hopeful for the future under your watch. Good luck. Here’s to hoping you find time in your busy schedule to get outside and enjoy the natural wonders our country has to offer.


Dylan Tomine