Our Democracy Should Protect People, Not Oil Companies

by Rachel Rye Butler

July 17, 2015

Our climate is protected when our democracy works to protect people, not oil companies. President Obama still has time to stop Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic. Will he take action?

Seattle Shell Rig Protest

An activist is pulled out of a kayak by Coast Guard officers during protests as the Shell drilling rig Polar Pioneer leaves Seattle's Elliott Bay bound for Alaska.

© Marcus Donner / Greenpeace

At sunrise on a Monday morning last month, I watched in disbelief as Shell’s monstrous Arctic drilling rig drew back its lines from shore and bore down on a flotilla of kakyaktivists there to protect our climate from the company’s reckless Arctic drilling plans.

Since discovering that Seattle was to be the home port for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, all manner of people—including grandmothers, young people, Indigenous folks, union members, and environmentalists—who care about climate justice have come together to say that we must do better. They’ve protested at Port Commission hearings, organized to gain the support of local elected officials, and rallied for climate justice on land and in kayaks. This movement continues to grow bigger every day.

Many of those grandmothers, environmentalists, Indigenous families, young people, and kayaktivists were floating directly in Shell’s path that Monday morning, but apparently it didn’t concern the company that moving ahead would put their lives at risk. And why would it? Government vessels were there to literally clear the way.

On further reflection, I don’t put it past Shell to throw its lines and bear down on the people floating in its path—the company has a long record of complete and utter disregard for human life. Certainly its singular mission to drill the Arctic and any other place it can get its hands on, destroying environments and our climate at the same time, is ample evidence of this.

This is a company whose infamous history includes partnering with a Nigerian military dictatorship that murdered nine Ogoni leaders in 1995, including author and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose last words were, “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.”

And the Struggle Does Continue

The same week that President Obama warned the nation that climate change is an “immediate threat to our national security,” his administration began to issue a series of permits giving Shell leave to proceed with its plan. Just weeks later, the Coast Guard itself literally cleared the path for Shell’s tugboats and massive rig to leave the port of Seattle by forcibly removing the kayaktivists attempting to block the way.

Our climate is protected when our democracy works to protect people, not oil companies.

Democracy is based on trust, transparency and meaningful participation in decisions affecting the public interest. Yet it’s clear from what happened in Seattle—as well as government actions paving Shell’s way before and since—that local, state and federal government agencies have no appetite for transparency, meaningful public participation in their decision-making processes or defense of the public interest.

Before coming to Seattle, Shell negotiated behind closed doors with the publicly elected Port Commission for permits that would make Seattle the home port for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet of destruction.

The people of Seattle have been rightfully outraged at this thwarting of the democratic process, and the decision of the Port Commission to allow Shell to come to Seattle is currently under legal review. However, Shell took the opportunity of the slow legal review process to park its rig in Seattle’s port anyway—and it was keen to leave under the cover of darkness in the wee hours of a Monday morning to avoid the movement of people who don’t want any part in Shell’s climate destruction.

A Democracy for Us and for the Environment

In some places, democracy is working the way that it should. That is, some elected leaders have stood up to represent the will of their constituents. Seattle’s City Council voted in favor of a resolution against Arctic drilling and the Port Commission’s decision to allow Shell into the city. The mayor is concerned about Arctic drilling and thinks that hosting the rig is the wrong direction for Seattle. One city council member was among the kayaktivists detained by the Coast Guard blocking Shell’s path as it tried to leave the port.

Unfortunately, despite many empty words of concern, we’ve seen no such leadership at the federal level. To witness the administration rubber stamp Shell’s various permits and literally clear the path for Shell to drill in the Arctic is deeply disappointing.

President Obama still has time to stop Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic. In Seattle and across the country, people concerned about the Arctic and our world’s future will be watching as the obvious question hangs in the balance: Will the president take bold action to shape a legacy that matches his eloquent calls to prevent catastrophic climate change?

You can be part of the movement to save the Arctic, too! Sign here and tell President Obama to reject Arctic drilling.

Rachel Rye Butler

By Rachel Rye Butler

Rachel Rye Butler is a campaigner at Greenpeace USA

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