Skip to main content

State To Shell: Long-Term Moorage Of Arctic Drill Rig Unconstitutional

State officials said Friday that it's unconstitutional for Shell Oil to store its Arctic drilling rig at the Port of Seattle's Terminal 5.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to Shell on Friday, informing the energy giant that short-term mooring of Shell's Polar Pioneer rig at the Port is fine.

But the letter said that the state constitution prohibits long-term mooring outside of harbors.

The Polar Pioneer, a massive floating platform 400 feet long and 292 feet wide, is more than twice as wide as the official harbor area at Terminal 5, where it arrived last week. And for most of the length of Terminal 5, its 130-foot-wide harbor area is completely covered by a dock that extends over the water and the state-owned land beneath it.

The Polar Pioneer juts out into the West Waterway of the Duwamish River, where long-term private use is forbidden by the state constitution. ("The state shall never give, sell or lease to any private person, corporation or association any rights whatever in the waters beyond such harbor lines," Article XV reads.)

"A ship could moor long-term inside the harbor line but not outside the harbor line," DNR spokesman Joe Smillie said. "The state constitution is pretty explicit in forbidding the state from giving, selling or leasing the rights to use the waters outside harbor lines for long-term moorage or other commercial uses."

Smillie said DNR determines what constitutes "long-term" on a case-by-case basis.

The DNR letter asked Shell how long it plans to keep its rig at Terminal 5 and requested an answer by June 1.

Shell has planned to keep its two Arctic drilling rigs at the Port of Seattle except during a brief drilling season in the fleeting Arctic summer.

In an email, Shell Oil spokesman Curtis Smith said the company just received the DNR letter and is reviewing it.

Smillie said DNR had no input into the lease that brought the Polar Pioneer to the port last week. He said the agency received no information earlier this year from the Port of Seattle or Foss Maritime, Shell's local contractor, as they were negotiating the lease.

DNR started looking into the Polar Pioneer's occupancy of state-owned aquatic lands this week after Arctic drilling protesters got into trouble with their own vessel, a barge they call "The People's Platform" or the "Solar Pioneer."

Before last weekend's floating protest dominated by hundreds of "kayaktivists," environmentalists anchored their solar-powered barge over Elliott Bay's Cove 2, unaware that it is one of Seattle's most popular scuba diving sites.

Divers told them they needed to leave, and the activists started researching where to go and how to avoid causing further damage.

"We're going to own it, make up for it and make it right," activist John Sellers of Vashon Island, Washington, said.

On Friday, DNR gave the protesters permission to move their barge 1,300 yards up the West Seattle shoreline and moor it there for 30 days.

"It started when the people's barge came to us asking if they needed permission to be where they were, and we reviewed the whole situation and noticed this," Smillie said.

By drawing DNR's attention to their own blunder, protesters might ultimately help their cause: making it more difficult for Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

DNR's letter to Shell:

DNR map of Terminal 5's harbor boundaries (Terminal 5 is on the left):

Why you can trust KUOW