The People Vs. Shell: Why I Took to the Water to Stop Arctic Drilling

What happens in the Arctic affects us all. That is one of the many reasons why, on June 15, 2015, myself and other concerned citizens decided to take bold, non-violent direct action against Shell.

Activist James Blakely

Photo via James Blakely.

June 11, 2015

It’s a beautiful, clear June day near my childhood home in Graham, Washington, and I am looking out across a grassy horse pasture towards the majestic Mt. Rainier. The mountain is looking less formidable these days as its glaciers recede and its snow pack melts earlier every season, exposing grey rock. I can’t quite recall a time when the mountain has looked so bare this early in the season. Neither can my mother.

As it turns out, Washington is experiencing a historically low snowpack this year and is already in a statewide drought emergency. What little snow fell over winter in the Cascades is quickly disappearing. Surrounding states are experiencing similar conditions.

Gazing out towards the mountain I grew up so close to—less than 30 miles as the crow flies—I am reminded of why I am a climate activist: it is for the beautiful places such as Mt. Rainier. It is for thewolverine, whose survival is threatened by low snowpack. It is for my nieces and nephews and future generations who will bear the worst impacts of climate change.

While Mt. Rainier’s glaciers melt, so does the Arctic. This past winter, the maximum extent of Arctic sea ice was the lowest ever recorded. The culprit: climate disruption fueled by the release of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Instead of curbing production and funding solutions to the climate crisis, oil companies such as Shell are lining up to pump even more carbon into the atmosphere by drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska.

Currently, Shell is using the Port of Seattle as a launching pad for its Arctic drilling fleet. If Shell gets its way, the long-term effects on our atmosphere will be catastrophic. What happens in the Arctic affects us all. That is one of the many reasons why, on June 15, 2015, myself and other concerned citizens decided to take bold, non-violent direct action against Shell.

June 15, 2015

It’s 4am on a Monday morning, a few days after visiting with my parents. A mix of adrenaline, fear, nervousness and excitement makes me oblivious to the cool, morning sea air as a spray of salty water splashes against my face. The bow of the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) that I am crewing is pointed towards the mouth of the Duwamish River as we race across Puget Sound. It is at the Port of Seattle, Terminal 5, where our target lies: Shell’s Polar Pioneer, which we’ve dubbed the Polar Destroyer. The monstrous rig is waking and ready to move, hoping to sneak out of Seattle unnoticed in the early hours of dawn. But the people of Seattle will not make it easy.

My RHIB reaches the middle of the channel near Terminal 5 and immediately the Coast Guard descends upon us. But they aren’t the only ones. A colorful wave of kayaktivists displaying red ‘Save the Arctic’ banners have materialized stealthily out of darkness. Off in the distance, I spot glowing, round lanterns which are affixed to other kayaks, swiftly moving in our direction. It is a beautiful sight.

Calmness and chaos swirls all around. Nine hundred feet of floating line resembling an oil boom is deployed, stretching across the channel to contain the Polar Destroyer. Additionally, a 150 by 30-foot floating banner is unfolded reading ‘Shell No’. Kayaks begin to form a line on either side of the banner and behind the floating line as a physical blockade of what lies ahead. There has been a surge of energy brewing in Seattle for the past several months since Shell has rolled into town uninvited. Even Seattle’s mayor and city council have spoken out against Shell using the Emerald City as a hub for its destructive practices. On this glorious morning, that energy ignited into a beautiful collective action of the people.

As kayaktivists stand their ground, the mooring lines are released from the Polar Pioneer and the giant machine begins to leave port, disregarding the safety of the dozens of people on the water. Although respectful to the activists, the Coast Guard sides with Shell and clears a path for the 40,000-ton rig that is putting our lives at risk. By mid-morning, authorities cut the floating line, wrangle up the massive banner and detain 24 activists and their boats.

As my RHIB—filled with the chanting of the Raging Grannies—follows the Polar Pioneer out of Elliot Bay, a feeling of frustration and helplessness washes over me. My heart breaks against the waves of the tug boats as they pull the drilling rig North. However, through social media, we hear that the rig is being met with more resistance. More kayaktivists have taken to the water to form another blockade off the coast of Bainbridge Island which delays the rig a few more hours.

Although we did not completely stop the Polar Pioneer, we did not necessarily fail. Every delay is less time that Shell gets to spend drilling in the Arctic this season. I am filled with a great sense of pride that I was able to be part of a wonderful group of activists that challenged corporate power and took action against Shell and its Arctic drilling plans. Every action we take will hopefully inspire others to fight for the places they love. Sometimes, we have to take great risks and put our bodies on the line for the greater good. The real victory from this action is that it was a signal to Shell and the world that when you put people and the planet at risk, we will stand up and fight back.

There is still time to stop Arctic drilling. President Obama has the authority to revoke Shell’s Arctic drilling permits. If Obama is at all serious about reducing our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, ending the tyranny of oil, slowing the rise of the oceans, and healing the planet, then he cannot allow Shell or any other oil company to drill in the Arctic. This is perhaps the next Keystone XL fight for the climate movement.

With the Pacific Northwest—my home—expected to warm as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century due to climate change, we have too much to lose. Mt. Rainier, an iconic symbol of the Northwest, will lose some of its grandeur without its glaciers. That is why many of us, myself included, were out on the waters of Puget Sound risking arrest.

If Obama won’t act to save the Arctic from drilling, then the people will.

James Blakely is an organizer and activist for 350 Idaho, which he founded in 2014. He is active in expanding LGBT rights and enjoys traveling, writing and spending time in the woods and mountains. He currently resides in Boise, Idaho.  

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.