Jason Redmond / Reuters

Protesters block access to Shell oil rig at Seattle port

Environmentalists aim to halt oil company’s oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Port of Seattle on Monday to block oil workers’ access to a Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig temporarily docked there on its journey to the Arctic, where it will be used to resume exploration for oil and gas reserves.

Holding signs reading “Shell no” and “Seattle loves the Arctic,” protesters assembled early in the morning to prevent workers from reaching the rig, one of two that Shell plans on sending to the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast this summer. 

On Monday evening,  the city issued a violation notice, saying use of Terminal 5 by a massive floating drill rig was in violation of the site's permitted use as a cargo terminal. The 400-foot Polar Pioneer and its support tug Aiviq must be removed from the terminal or Shell's host, Foss Maritime, must obtain an appropriate permit, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development said.

The companies can appeal.  Possible fines start at $150 per day and can rise to $500 per day. The notice said the violation must be corrected by June 4.

"It remains our view that the terms agreed upon by Shell, Foss and the Port of Seattle for use of Terminal 5 are valid, and it's our intention to continue loading-out our drilling rigs in preparation for exploratory drilling offshore Alaska," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

"Terminal 5 is permitted to tie up ships while they are being loaded and unloaded," Foss Maritime spokesman Paul Queary said. "That is exactly what Foss is doing there."

Queary noted that both Foss and the Port of Seattle are appealing an earlier determination by the city that the use of Terminal 5 was not permitted. Monday's violation notice followed that determination.

Environmental groups opposed to drilling in the Arctic have organized a series of protests against Shell’s plans, saying drilling in the frigid region, where weather changes rapidly, could lead to a catastrophic spill that would be impossible to clean.

They also say drilling would threaten the Arctic’s vast layer of sea ice, which helps regulate global temperature and has been disappearing as a result of global warming. 

"We’re going to put a message out to the planet that we need to take care of ourselves," protester Les Berenson told Al Jazeera. 

Nevertheless, officials in Alaska have touted the economic benefits that drilling could bring there and to the Pacific Northwest.

Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council, was among the protesters on Monday. She told local KIRO radio that her participation was “in solidarity with the environmental community.”

“Any drilling of oil in the Arctic represents grave danger to all humanity,” she said.

The protesters, estimated at nearly 200, marched across a bridge to Terminal 5, where oil workers were conducting some work, and temporarily shut down a road leading to the port.

Organizers said those involved in Monday’s protest aim to halt work on the rig. It’s the just the latest action carried out in Seattle against Shell. On Thursday hundreds of people in kayaks greeted the company’s 400-foot rig with a protest on the water. They did the same on Saturday, dubbing the event the Paddle in Seattle.

"In regards to today’s protest, the activities of the day were anticipated and did not stop crews from accomplishing meaningful work in preparation for exploration offshore Alaska this summer," Shell's Smith said in a statement.

Police say arrests are possible, but demonstrations have so far remained festive and peaceful. A few dozen officers followed the march on foot and bicycle and kept watch at the terminal.

Protesters of all ages sang, rapped and danced at Terminal 5’s vehicle gate on Monday afternoon. They chanted and held signs reading “Climate justice for all” and “You Shell not pass.”

Lisa Marcus, 58, a musician who participated in Saturday’s protest, turned up with a “Love the planet” sign for another day of activism Monday.

“We've got to wake up” to the dangers of human-caused climate change, she said, ticking off a list of environmental problems that the world is facing. “Shell is trying to make it worse, and that’s not acceptable.” 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Allen Schauffler contributed to this report from Seattle. 

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