Can citizens in kayaks stop Shell when President Obama won’t?

Everyone knows that drilling offshore for oil in the unforgiving waters of the Arctic is a fool’s errand. Three summers ago, Shell’s initial foray into this extreme quest for crude oil was an unmitigated disaster, ending with the bizarre yet tragically predictable saga of its oil rig the Kulluk breaking loose and slamming into the rocky coastline of Alaska.

Now, Shell has been making plans to try drilling in the Arctic yet again. In the operation’s staging area of Seattle, everyday citizens are willing to take enormous risks to stop them from even getting up there:

SEATTLE — A dozen or so men and women, cinched into life jackets, paddles at the ready, were about to launch their kayaks into Elliott Bay early Thursday evening with Seattle’s glittering skyline as the backdrop. For some of the paddlers, it was a first-time experience, and with the water at 50 degrees and choppy, there were some obvious signs of trepidation.

“O.K., what hazards are we watching for?” Elizabeth Chiaravalli, their instructor, shouted, and a smattering of answers immediately bounced back. “The waves!” “The dock!” “The pilings!”

Then Cynthia Orr, 67, a mental health counselor, spoke up. “Shell Oil!” she cried, standing by her boat. Her fellow kayakers — or kayaktivists, as they call themselves — roared.

The standoff between Royal Dutch Shell, which proposes to lease a terminal in the Port of Seattle for its Arctic drilling fleet, and the opponents who want to block the company’s plans for environmental and other reasons, is going aquatic. The various groups organizing a “ShellNo Flotilla” for Saturday hope to attract 1,000 kayaks or other small boats, and are arranging temporary housing for people coming from elsewhere to train and participate.

It’s not clear how far these protesters are willing to go, although at least 200 have signed up to commit acts of civil disobedience — a stance that risks arrest, assuming there is no accident as they paddle the busy port. Some of the opponents of the Shell project are worried — and rightfully so — about the impact that Arctic oil drilling will have on climate change. But others are haunted by the specter of another devastating spill like the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident, which damaged Alaska’s ecology for many years, arguably to this day. The near-misses that occurred during Shell’s first go-round should have convinced officials to go in a different direction.

Instead, the Obama administration is moving full steam ahead:

The US government has given Shell approval to restart drilling in the Arctic despite repeated warnings from environmentalists that it could lead to an ecological disaster.

The Obama administration on Monday approved Shell’s plan to resume drilling for oil and gas in the treacherous and fragile waters off the coast of Alaska, three years after the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was forced to suspend operations following a series of potentially dangerous blunders.

Scientists and environmental groups on Monday attacked the decision and warned that Shell’s “risky and ill-conceived exploration” plan could “lead to a disaster in the Arctic”.

“Instead of holding Shell accountable and moving the country towards a sustainable future, our federal regulators are catering to an ill-prepared company in a region that doesn’t tolerate cutting corners,” Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace, said. “Shell has a history of dangerous malfunctioning in the Arctic while global scientists agree that Arctic oil must stay in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

As is so often the case, the people are wiser than their leaders. With oil prices at recent historical lows and with plenty of oil, for better or worse, coming up from the earth thanks to fracking in North Dakota and elsewhere, there is absolutely no need to take the risks that are raised so casually by drilling off the coast of Alaska. The approval of Arctic drilling by the Obama administration is a cowardly endorsement of the status quo. And so now a few hundred heroes with paddles are going to have to try to accomplish what the government could have done with the simple stroke of a pen.

Check out the New York Times coverage of the Seattle protests against Shell: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/us/grabbing-paddles-in-seattle-to-ward-off-an-oil-giant.html

Here’s more coverage of the Obama administration’s move to allow offshore Arctic drilling this summer: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/11/shell-arctic-drilling-alaska-oil-gas

Learn more about what’s so terrible about Arctic drilling in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

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