We’ve been having a huge brouhaha here in Seattle about the port's waterfront lease to Foss Maritime, which, just by historical connection, should be as non-controversial as it gets. But the two-year lease to Foss also extends to Shell Oil, Foss’s client, which wants to stage its Arctic drilling fleet out of Seattle’s Pier 5. The Port of Seattle, which wants to upgrade Pier 5 in the near future, is charging $13 million for the two years.

The port signed the lease with Foss in February with no fanfare or public input, which is the official reason being cited by the opposition as grounds for a lawsuit challenging the lease.

Earlier this month, the port held its first public meeting about the lease, and it was well attended by both supporters and opponents of the lease. The commercial industry came out to support Foss and the port and talk up all the economic benefits to the region. It’s a good piece of business.

The opposition is coming from Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups. They say the lease should have had an environmental review and public involvement before the port signed the deal.

Their real objection is Shell. The opposition doesn’t want Shell drilling in the Arctic, so they see the Seattle lease as a strategic attack point.

The problem with that strategy is that Shell can go to other ports, possibly in British Columbia or Alaska, so stopping them at Pier 5 won’t necessarily keep them away from the Chukchi Sea.

At this point, we don’t know if Shell will get the green light from the Obama administration or not. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, a Seattleite, is expected to soon affirm, modify or void the 2008 federal lease sale at which Shell spent over $2 billion on drilling leases. Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recommended that Jewell validate the 2008 Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193. Meanwhile, Shell reportedly has two drilling rigs en route to Seattle from Asia, the Polar Pioneer, a semisubmersible drilling rig, and the Noble Discoverer, a drillship that worked Shell’s Arctic program in 2012. Apparently, Shell is expecting to put them to work this summer.

Earthjustice, Greenpeace and other environmental groups don’t trust Shell’s — or any company’s — ability to develop offshore wells in the Arctic without causing environmental damage. And given Shell’s record, which includes the grounding of the conical drilling rig Kulluk and the felony offenses admitted by Noble Drilling for illegal operations in 2012, they’ve got a point. (Noble was charged with environmental and maritime crimes for operating the Noble Discoverer and Kulluk in violation of federal law in Alaska in 2012. Late last year, Noble plead guilty to eight felony offenses, agreed to pay $12.2 million dollars in fines and community service payments, implement a comprehensive Environmental Compliance Plan, and was placed on probation for four years.)

These fights over oil and gas exploration in the Arctic aren’t going away anytime soon. The stakes, both economic and environmental, are very high.

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).