Why the Environmental Battle at the Port of Seattle Matters Everywhere

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In January, the Port of Seattle stumbled into a drama it did not expect; a few days before one of their public meetings, port commissioners announced that their tenant, Foss Maritime, was going to sign a sublease with Shell to host its Arctic drilling rigs in the off-season. Mere days before that, the journal Nature came out with a report detailing which fossil fuels need to be left in the ground if we want to have any hope of not going past the 2-degree Celsius temperature rise limit, beyond which catastrophe awaits. (Many scientists, including James Hansen, are now arguing, in fact, that anything above about 1.2 degrees Celsius will be disastrous, but for the sake of argument, we’ll stick with the internationally agreed upon and greatly less stringent 2-degree Celsius maximum.)

The article indicated that drilling in the Arctic – any drilling in the Arctic – is “inconsistent” with this goal: the goal of avoiding planetary catastrophe. In a sane world, this would be the last word on it.

At the meeting, two of the five commissioners, dismayed by the lease prospect, argued for more time for public input; the other three offered some version of the slippery slope argument – if they were to start “picking and choosing” which subleases they “like and don’t like,” where in God’s name would it end? Their mandate is to get good family-wage jobs for the city of Seattle, not to determine national environmental policy. And besides, said one – who admitted that “it’s a cop-out to say this is just a federal decision, and I know we have to move past business-as-usual” – really it would be “merely symbolic,” and Shell would just go elsewhere, so what was the point?

So on they went with business as usual, while stating – with anguish, in one of the three cases – that if it were up to them, there wouldn’t be any Arctic drilling.

You could almost hear the sound of the punt that could doom millions.

Seattle environmental groups leapt forward, speaking with a single voice. No: Under no circumstances is this an acceptable role for the Port of Seattle (which, unusually, is publicly owned and taxpayer-funded). There was a press conference and several articles; emails went out to local lists; a legal challenge was announced to be under consideration; and most importantly, thousands of emails were sent to the commissioners, saying essentially that supporting Arctic drilling is crazy, and that at a minimum, as a public agency acting in a highly controversial area, they should hold public hearings, to give citizens a chance to weigh in.

A couple of weeks later, the Port responded – giving us the finger, by signing the lease without further discussion.

Let me step back for just a minute to address the “merely symbolic” question, because it’s important to note that the charge is both unknowable and wrongheaded. Unknowable, because symbolic actions educate and move people, and then those people get up to some decidedly unsymbolic actions. The Keystone XL fight, of course, is the obvious one – 800,000 barrels a day have been left in the ground because of the opposition (also deemed entirely symbolic at the start), and several companies have given up their tar sands plans as a result. But it’s also wrongheaded, because even if Shell drills in the Arctic without our involvement, the symbolism shows the way forward. The Port of Portland didn’t reject an oil train terminal because they thought it would stop fracking; they did so because they wanted to acknowledge that it’s not possible to talk about environmental concerns and do business like that. It’s about acknowledging that values mean something.

The symbolism charge may also be simply wrong; it’s our understanding that Shell’s only other real option for the fleet is Dutch Harbor, Alaska, which would be greatly more expensive for them than Seattle; that expense, of course, gets factored into their decision about pursuing Arctic drilling, which every other US company has already abandoned as too expensive and too difficult.

So the symbolism argument is demonstrably bad, but it’s not the dangerous one. The reasonable-sounding “slippery slope” argument is trotted out whenever we newly understand something to be unacceptable in some way, whether it’s smoking on public buses, drinking while driving or consuming trans fats. “Come on!” goes the alarum. “If you limit our choices and don’t trust our judgment, where does it end?”

It’s a particularly ludicrous argument when it comes to climate change. As my friend, the climate warrior KC Golden, replied simply, “Where do we draw the line? Here – at the plan marked ‘this is the way the world ends.'” So when we’re taking part in disastrous projects, it doesn’t matter whether we’re making the bombs that will kill our children, or “merely” making the fuses used in them, we have to say, no: We will have nothing to do with this.

I have some sympathy for the commissioners: We are all in a wholly new place, and it no doubt never occurred to them that a completely standard business decision on their part would suddenly be seen to lead to planetary destabilization. This is not an easy fact to metabolize, but it’s where we all are now.

They might not be Nero, fiddling while Rome burns, but they are, in fact, his backup singers. Though actually, it’s worse than that – it’s as if Nero/Shell set the fire, rather than merely standing idly by as it burned. And the Port is standing by, ready to help, and astonished that they’re being taken to task for this.

Decisions like this are taking place all over the country: permitting decisions, infrastructure decisions – things that used to be rubber-stamped. Keystone XL, of course, is the godfather of them all, but equally critical is whether or not the Northwest allows the proposed coal export terminals (a fight we’re winning – three years ago there were proposals for six; only two are still on the table), the massive expansion of Line 61 in Wisconsin, the exploitation of the Utah tar sands, and many others.

There’s a simple three-question test that could be applied to all such decisions; we could call it the “Yes, commissioner, Arctic drilling really is up to you” test:

1. Do you accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change?
2. Do you understand what scientists say about the impact that X action has on climate change?
3. Are you supporting X action in a meaningful way?

It’s that simple. It’s also chilling – normal, nice, non-sociopathic people are confronted with the preposterous fact that they’re partly responsible for a decision that will lead to immeasurable destruction: more droughts (ask the people of Sao Paulo or Syria if they think we should support Arctic drilling), vastly worse storms (ditto the people of the Philippines), likely famines and widespread extinctions.

This is where we are: in a chilling and seemingly preposterous place. But being surprised by that doesn’t mean we can’t also take responsibility. All our days now really are the first day of the rest of our lives, and there can be no more “just this once, we’ll keep doing what we’re used to, and then we’ll start discussions to figure out how to do something differently … next time.” The science is very clear – we have no time; we are halfway through decade zero, (1) and if we don’t make great changes in the next few years, we are in very deep trouble indeed. Our task gets vastly more difficult, and there will be vastly more suffering than there needs to be. To quote KC Golden again, the first thing we do is to stop making things worse.

In a way, we are all the Port of Seattle commissioners, caught in the headlights and three-fifths reluctant to change, or even acknowledge that we need to (we might possibly be open to acknowledging that we need to start a process for discussions of whether we need to change). But some of us have metabolized the new reality faster, and the Port battle is a fight that we the people are going to win, because we have to: Arctic drilling would be a catastrophe, pure and simple. We may need to start a recall process for the commissioners; we may need to sue; we may need to blockade; we may even need to think seriously about whether taxpayers should continue to fund a Port that makes such disastrous unilateral decisions.

Two weeks ago, none of this would have been necessary: It would have been eminently reasonable for the Port to announce that it would respond to public outcry and hold hearings. And though they are no doubt eager to put this behind them and reluctant to revisit a signed lease, the truth is that they will not be able to put this behind them; it’s our job to make sure of that. If they understand the commitment behind this stance, they can still do the right thing, and put a hold on the lease until a robust public process has taken place and they have understood how deep the opposition runs to this project, and why; they can be leaders, siding with the people of Seattle and accepting that we all have to find a new way of doing business today.

Or they can choose to be the last of a dying breed, unwilling to face the realities of the hard place we find ourselves in, unwilling even to listen to the city that elected them.

Nobody ever said change was easy. But across the continent – across the world – these are the stories that are unfolding. Every battle matters to every other battle, and to the whole. If we win enough of them, we just might find ourselves with a planet on the mend.


1. Loosely defined as the first decade in which we’re seeing the impacts of climate change, and the last in which we can – reasonably easily – do something about it. According to Hansen, if we begin annual greenhouse gas reductions of just over 6 percent immediately, we have a chance at getting back to a stable 350 ppm by 2100; if we don’t start until 2020, it will require 15 percent annual reductions.