Why Seattleites Think They Can Stop Shell Oil From Drilling in the Arctic

The Port of Seattle has welcomed the oil company to temporarily moor its drilling rig before it’s towed to Alaska. But these protestors are threatening to block it.
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Andreas Widlund, one of the six Greenpeace activists who climbed the Polar Pioneer. All photos by James Trimarco.

During the afternoon on Sunday, April 26, protestors gathered in Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park to protest plans by oil company Shell to conduct exploratory drilling for oil off the northern coast of Alaska. Shell is towing an oil rig, called the Polar Pioneer, to the Chukchi Sea, and it has stopped in Seattle for maintenance.

The events began with a rally, where hundreds of people heard speeches by Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard, Seattle-based activist group Got Green?, and others.

The protestors marched down the pier to the Port of Seattle’s headquarters, which houses the government body directly responsible for the decision to moor the rig. Popular chants included “Shell shall not pass” and “If you ship it, we will block it.”

The day’s events were part of a larger effort to stop the rig from reaching the Arctic. On April 6, six activists affiliated with the environmental group Greenpeace scaled the Polar Pioneer as it sailed through the Pacific Ocean. They camped out on the massive machine for six days before weather conditions became too harsh (waves were expected to reach 7 meters).

This month’s events are just the beginning. In mid-May, volunteers will attempt to block the rig’s passage out of Seattle’s Elliott Bay with a “kayak flotilla.”

Speakers at the rally gave many reasons for their opposition to Shell’s plans. Jill Mangaliman of Got Green? cited the negative effects Arctic oil drilling could have on climate change, such as an expected temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius. They also urged port authorities to rescind the lease to Shell, arguing that they bypassed an environmental review mandated by the State Environmental Policy Act.

YES! talked to demonstrators about why this issue warrants action and how they hope to stop it.

Here are some of their ideas. These interviews have been lightly edited.


Sarra Tekola

Age: 22

Occupation: Student and part-time legislative assistant

YES!: What brought you to the rally today?

Tekola: Now that Shell is coming to Seattle and giving us this opportunity for us to interrupt them—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand up for what we believe in. The fact that drilling in the Arctic can push us past 2 degrees of warming is another reason why we have to go stop them by any means necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen. It was a beautiful event—I was glad to see all this solidarity in Seattle. I don’t think Shell could have picked a better place to get stopped.

YES!: How do we stop Arctic oil drilling?

Tekola: At this point the secretary of the interior has approved this. We’ve seen Obama, who has been working really hard on climate change and climate action, looking the other way, and we’ve seen that the City Council does not approve, and yet there’s nothing they can do. Our elected officials at the Port of Seattle thought this was OK. So really the power is in the people. We’ve got to blockade, we’ve got to stop them through direct action and make sure this doesn’t happen. This is our lunch counter sit-in.


Ariahna Jones

Occupation: Science resource coordinator

YES!: What brought you to the rally today?

Jones: I just wanted to participate in something that I feel so strongly about—the protection of our Salish Sea. It’s so important culturally and environmentally for everyone. We need to stand together and protect it.

YES!: How do we stop Arctic oil drilling?

Jones: I think it will take a lot of support towards alternative resources. I think the technology is out there, but the support and money just needs to be put in that direction. It's more environmentally sound and more economically sound; it holds more of a future than the dirty oil.


Lee Colleton

Age: 36

Occupation: Volunteer / Systems administrator

YES!: How do we stop Arctic oil drilling?

Colleton: The best way to stop drilling for the United States would be for the government to rescind the lease that they granted to Shell Oil. They’ve seen multiple rejected spill response plans from Shell. They’ve seen their history of abuse and criminality. It is insane, it is literally insane for us to grant them a lease to drill in an extremely sensitive region in the world.

YES!: What role do rallies like this one play on the issue of drilling in the Arctic?

Colleton: Nonviolent direct action is an essential part of opposition to business as usual. This shows companies like Shell that their rampant abuses will not go unchecked. Even if they manage to buy off people in government—they're going to meet resistance on the ground and it’s going to cost them.


Zarna Joshi

Age: 32

Occupation: Writer

YES!: What brought you to the rally today?

Joshi: I’m extremely concerned about life on this planet. I’m concerned the greedy, corrupt politicians have conspired with Big Oil to take for themselves and give the people ecological destruction. We’re witnessing this happen right before our eyes in Seattle, one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the country, and they think that the people are going to stand for it—that is so absurd that I had to be here today.

YES!: How do we stop Arctic oil drilling?

Joshi: The best approach would be for the port commissioner to rescind the lease. If they are actually doing their jobs as elected officials of the people and doing the bidding of the people, that’s what they would do. The next best thing would be that if the judge in the court case going on would strike down the lease, that would also be great—or if the [Washington State] Department of Ecology, the federal government, if they strike down the lease that would be great. The truth is none of these things are going to happen because the politicians are bought. The politicians are all in the pocket of Big Oil. We have some wonderful people in our police force here in Seattle, but they are not here to protect us; they are here to protect Shell, Big Oil, corporate interests. The people are going to rise up; they’re going to have to resist. That’s the only way we’re going to beat this. Just like the WTO protest, just like Occupy, just like all of these movements that have gone before us, we will have to rise up and resist and we will do it and we're determined.


(Left to Right)

Kade Yenchek

Age: 22

Occupation: Field organizer, Fund for the Public Interest

Rosy Gentle

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Kevin Fenwick

Age: 25

Occupation: Field organizer, Fund for the Public Interest

YES!: What brought you to the rally today?

Kenchik: To say, “Shell No!”

YES!: How do we stop Arctic oil drilling?

Fenwick: Generating public consciousness. The pros and cons are concrete, and more of the public needs to be educated and mobilized about Arctic drilling.

Gentle: I think we need to organize the movement against Shell and then put our resources into building more green-energy jobs.

YES!: What role do rallies like this one play on the issue of drilling in the Arctic?

Yenchek: I think they help us organize together around a single issue and get excited. We actually have power if we get together and focus our energy on what we care about.

Fenwick: I think they build public consciousness—it’s important to hold representatives in Congress accountable. These type of movements also create a symbol for people to get behind and essentially move those who are neutral and inactive to a point where they see a potential in people power.

Editor’s Note: A sentence has been cut from one of these interviews, due to the subject’s legal concerns.