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Environmentalists Try to Block Shell’s Seattle Port Lease For Arctic Drilling

A coalition of environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest has filed a request for summary judgment in a Washington state superior court, seeking to block a Port of Seattle lease to a Royal Dutch Shell plc affiliate for the company's offshore drilling fleet, which would be used in Alaska.

A hearing date has been set before Judge Douglass North on July 31 in Seattle.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and other groups asked for an order vacating the lease because the groups allege that it was granted in violation of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The groups originally challenged the lease last March in a filing to the same court.

The original filing alleged that the port and Foss Maritime Co., representing the proposed Shell drilling fleet (see Daily GPI, June 12), did not properly identify the project as being different from the past container ship loading facility on the port terminal and should not have been given an exemption from environmental review.

"The port is now embarking on a project to modernize Terminal 5 to enable it to handle larger container vessels that are beginning to dominate international shipping," the groups said in their filing, adding that an exemption like the one granted to the Foss lease is supposed to be applied only when the use of real property involved would "remain essentially the same."

Port officials have said, according to press reports, that the change-of-use arguments were "like arguing that a Collie is not a dog; there are many breeds of dog and many types of cargo, and a change in cargo activity is not a change of use. Terminal 5 will continue to be used as a cargo terminal by the new tenant."

Efforts to upgrade Terminal 5 are part of a long-term plan to grow the port's overall container volumes, and this should require a state environmental assessment, according to the filing. The groups allege that since last year, port officials have been subjected to what they call "a concerted lobbying campaign" by the maritime industry to have Terminal 5 set up to become Shell's homeport for its Arctic drilling fleet.

State environmental rules further mandate that "appropriate consideration of environmental information shall be completed before an agency commits to a particular course of action,” the groups contend, and “no action concerning the proposal shall be taken by a government agency” before such time. "The port violated these mandates, and accordingly, this court should declare the lease invalid, null and void.

"The lease categorical exemption applies 'only when the property use will remain essentially the same as the existing use for the term of the agreement.' Foss has leased Terminal 5 to serve as a homeport for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet.”

Besides Soundkeeper, an Earthjustice attorney filed the motion in state court on behalf of the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and Seattle Audubon Society. The Earthjustice attorney, Patti Goldman, contends that Shell made a secret deal with port officials that "shut out the public and subverted laws" that are designed to have "an informed public assessment of controversial proposals."

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