In the Face of Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans, Seattle Activists Speak Out

Seattle protesters demonstrate against Shell's arctic drilling plans. (Photo: Alex Garland)Seattle protesters demonstrate against Shell’s arctic drilling plans. (Photo: Alex Garland)

It may seem odd for a privileged city in the global North, one little-impacted by climate change, to be at the forefront of an emerging climate justice movement.

Climate refugees forced to flee their homes and communities because of the impacts of climate change are more common in the global South, or so record-setting coastal floods, droughts and typhoons tell us. However, decades of migration from the global South to the global North, including Seattle, where the movement has taken off, have fostered a new generation of activists sensitive to the experience of climate refugees.

When the Port of Seattle offered Royal Dutch Shell a home port for its Arctic drilling fleet, it didn’t take long for climate justice to become the rallying cry. Add the fact that Seattle – along with the rest of the country – is experiencing a widespread, deepening awareness across generations and cultures of the rapid pace of climate change, and the fuse was ready to be lit.

Sarra Tekola and Katrina Pestano are climate justice activists living in Seattle. Both are involved in the ongoing battle to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic this summer. Both have roots in the global South, a deepening awareness of the climate crisis faced by their generation – Tekola is 22 and Pestano is 31 – and a stake in the various cultures and places they call home.

When they learned of the backroom deal the Port of Seattle signed to facilitate Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, they found ways to make their voices heard. They attended public Port meetings to urge commissioners to cancel the deal. As part of a grassroots action council, they organized mass protests in mid-May. And they are planning further protests to pressure Shell to stop its drilling fleet from leaving for the Arctic in June.

Tekola is currently finishing college, majoring in environmental studies at the University of Washington. In the fall, she begins working for her PhD. “This is our moment,” she says. “We have about five years to put together a global climate policy before it becomes the point of no return.”

Tekola says the lack of such policy makes it easier to justify drilling for oil in the Arctic. A study by the academic journal Nature documented that all Arctic oil reserves are off limits or “unburnable.”

“So why drill for it,” asks Tekola. “Drilling is incompatible with staying under 2 degrees of warming.” According to the study, there are three times more fossil fuels in reserves, including all potential oil that could be exploited in the Arctic, than is compatible with staying under 2C, the maximum temperature rise scientists believe the planet can handle.

She contends that government leaders and Port of Seattle officials are failing the city’s residents and says, “It’s up to us to stop business as usual and demand serious investments in alternative energy, so my generation has a future.”

Tekola’s perspective is framed by the story of her family’s migration, beginning in the 1970s. “My father is from Ethiopia,” she says. “He became a refugee because of famine, in large part due to desertification, a byproduct of climate change. … All of our family was dislocated. I have a brother in Italy, an aunt in Germany, an uncle in Toronto.”

Famine and drought in Ethiopia and the entire Sahel region of Africa, the semiarid region of western and north-central Africa, were caused in part by pollution from the Northern Hemisphere, specifically from aerosols released by coal-burning factories in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, according to a study reported in LiveScience.com. “Even changes from relatively far away spread into the tropics,” says Dargan Frierson, study coauthor and climatologist at the University of Washington. It was the biggest drought to hit the planet in the 20thcentury.

There were other factors, Tekola notes: deforestation, poor management, a military coup. But climate change isn’t an abstraction for her; it’s visceral. She emphasizes that climate refugees should have human rights protections, like any refugee who’s been forced to flee a country because of persecution or war.

Tekola needs to get back to her studies and prepare for a talk before the University of Washington African Student Association about neocolonization of Africa and the geopolitics of oil. She’s been studying Shell’s record in Nigeria, a record that has strengthened her resolve to resist Shell in her own backyard.

“The Ogoni people in Nigeria have been resisting Shell for a long time. Those who stood up and said, ‘You can’t put a pipeline through my farmland,’ or complained about oil spills, were killed. We don’t have to worry about being killed here, so we have a responsibility and a privilege as Americans to resist.” Confidential memos, witness statements and other documents released in 2009, according to The Guardian, show the company regularly paid the Nigerian military to stop peaceful protests against pollution and even planned raids on villages suspected of opposing the company.

Sense of Responsibility

The same sense of responsibility and urgency for climate justice are behind Katrina Pestano’s determination to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic. Pestano immigrated to California from the Philippines at age 10 and eventually moved to Seattle for college. When Typhoon Bopha hit southern Mindano in 2009, she took time off from her day job as an anti-violence community organizer with Asians and Pacific Islanders and returned to the Philippines to do relief work. It was the beginning of an awakening, Pestano says: “That part of the country had never been hit with a typhoon before. It’s where I’m from and where many in my family remain.”

When Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm to ever make landfall in the world, hit the Philippines in 2013, Pestano returned again to do relief work. “It was catastrophic,” she says. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and over 6,000 were killed. The typhoon devastated portions of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines. “People are still trying to rebuild,” she says. This time, Pestano’s awakening came with a heightened awareness of climate change and resource extraction in her country.

Shell has been active in what it refers to as “oil and gas development” in the Philippines for over a century. Multinationals like Shell and others, says Pestano, are the driving force behind fossil fuel expansion. “Unless we figure out a way to stop them and stop climate change from continuing its course, these storms will continue to happen,” she says. “It’s life or death for my people.”

Pestano is an organizer with Bayan, a Filipino organization whose acronym means, New Patriotic Alliance. “It also means home, country and people,” she says, “all in this one beautiful word.” For several years she’d been looking for a way to bridge her work with Bayan and local environmental justice groups when she met someone from Rising Tide Seattle, one of the groups engaged in direct action against Shell and the Port of Seattle.

She went to a “sHellno” action council meeting, and, despite “the overwhelming whiteness” of the group, decided to get involved. She also found solidarity in the presence of Idle No More, a grassroots movement founded in December 2012 by three First Nations women and one non-Native ally. “It’s been a pretty positive experience in terms of building a movement across communities and across different generations,” Pestano says. “We’re creating space for the voices of front line indigenous communities, something that doesn’t exist in Seattle and probably hasn’t for a long time.”

Like Tekola, Pestano emphasizes that with privilege comes responsibility – or, at least, it should. “It’s our responsibility as Filipinos and Filipino-Americans to use our privilege and our access to put a stop to what corporations like Shell are doing to people across the world.” She adds that since we have the means to transition to a different economy and different source of energy, “there’s no excuse for us to follow the dominant propaganda and assume we have no other choice.”

Over the weekend, the head of Shell’s Arctic drilling program, Ann Pickard, in an interview with the Seattle Times, confirmed that the company plans to head to the Arctic’s Chuckchi Sea. Shell first drilled in an area, called the Burger Prospect, in 1989 and 1990 and found natural gas.

“We’re going to focus on what I call the prize,” she told the Times, “and the prize to me is Burger. If Burger works, then it opens up the whole area.” Environmentalists have sought to block all drilling in the area for years, due to the risks of an oil spill in the biologically rich, remote waters.

Since the initial series of protests in May, action council members have been meeting regularly to plan the next wave. “If we can just delay operations and make sure the drilling rigs can’t leave at the end of June,” says Tekola, “then at least they can’t drill this summer, and we can find other ways of getting them to stop altogether.”

Another Shell drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, is expected to arrive in the Port of Seattle any day. Kayakativists say they’re ready to ‘unwelcome’ it.

Earlier in the week, a woman who had been hanging off the anchor chain of another ship in Shell’s Arctic drilling arsenal – the Arctic Challenger, which was anchored in Bellingham, a port city north of Seattle – ended a four-day protest.

Protest will continue.