Activists managed to block Royal Dutch Shell’s icebreaker Fennica from heading to the Arctic for about 40 hours. And even though the ship was eventually able to weave through the activists, Shell now has to deal with some unwanted attention.
This battle between activists and the oil company began when Shell’s icebreaker Fennica ran into something around the Aleutian Islands and tore a hole in its hull earlier this month. The ship, which is needed for oil drilling in the Arctic, arrived in Portland for repairs on July 25 with the intent of returning to the Arctic once the repairs were done. Unfortunately for Shell, on July 24, activists from various groups including Greenpeace, Mosquito Fleet, 350, and Rising Tide had already begun their plan to block this ship from leaving Portland and were in the water near St. John’s Bridge, which the ship would have to pass under to continue its trip to the Arctic.
“[Fennica] couldn’t be fixed in Alaska, [and] presumably didn’t want to go back to Seattle, where there had been such protest, so it came to Portland on a very tight timeline to repair it and then get back up to the Arctic,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, told Democracy Now! “And that’s why this blockade was so powerful, was that any delay that we [created] could have shortened the amount of time that Shell can drill this summer, because they have such a short ice-free window. They have to get up there, drill and get out before the winter ice returns.”
The activists say that drilling for oil in the Arctic opens up the possibility of truly disastrous oil spills in a remote, ecologically-important region where clean-up would prove to be extremely difficult.
On July 25, activists in kayaks, known as “kayaktivists,” surrounded Fennica and chanted “Shell No! Save the Arctic!” Protesters occupied the waters off Portland for days after, and then, on July 29, 13 people, attached by ropes to the St. Johns Bridge, lowered themselves from the bridge in order to block the ship from passing under it. The activists stated that they were ready to remain dangling from the bridge for as long as it took to stop the ship.
“We’re prepared to stay as long as it takes to send a message to Shell and stop the Fennica from leaving,” Georgia Hirsty, one of the protesters, told Portland’s KGW.
Fennica remained at the dock during that day, but the next day, the ship attempted to begin its trip to the Arctic. Traffic on the bridge was shut down as activists hung from the bridge and occupied the waters below in their kayaks. As the ship approached early in the morning, activists on the bridge and in the waters put their bodies directly in the way of the ship’s path. The ship soon decided to turn around and head back to the dock as activists celebrated their temporary victory.
“This morning was quite the adventure. It felt really, really great to watch the Fennica turn around and go back to port,” Kristina Flores, a Greenpeace activist, told Democracy Now! “That was just a really great, great sign that we are winning, that we are strong, and when the people come together, we can win. And we will win.”
Soon, the Coast Guard, Oregon State Police, Portland Fire & Rescue and other government agencies arrived, shut down traffic on the bridge and in the waters, and attempted to break up the protest. Authorities began to cut the ropes connecting dangling protesters to each other and pull the kayaktivists out of the way. One kayaktivist even jumped out of his kayak, refused to get out of the water, got into a fight with a cop, and was arrested for “assaulting a public safety officer.”
Shell’s lawyers also asked a judge to fine Greenpeace $250,000 each day until the protest ended. The court found the group in contempt of court and ended up levying fines on them for their protest, starting at $2,500 an hour and going up to $10,000 an hour.
“We met with the climbers on the bridge. We really felt it was their decision, first and foremost,” Leonard said. “And we all decided to stay on the bridge, that saving the Arctic was worth more than the monetary value of the fine that they were imposing. So we stayed absolutely put there.”
Shell insists that they have no problem with the protests but are very worried about safety.
“We respect the rights of individuals and groups to express their opinion,” Shell Oil spokeswoman Megan Baldino told KGW. “All we ask is that they do so within the confines of the law and maintain safety as their first priority. Safety is paramount.”
Afterwards, a mix of intense heat and the police got some of the protesters to come down from the bridge and out of the waters. This soon created a gap in the activists’ blockade which was quickly taken advantage of by Shell’s ship. At around 6 p.m. that day, hours after their initial victory, Fennica, assisted and accompanied by police, weaved through the protesters and made its way toward the Arctic.
“The Fennica is now safely on its way to Alaska and will join Shell’s exploration fleet in the Chukchi Sea — where the Transocean Polar Pioneer commenced initial drilling operations at approximately 5:00 tonight AKDT,” Shell Oil told KGW in a statement.
Despite the ship making it through the blockade, Greenpeace activists managed to bring much attention to the issue as well as worsen Shell’s already-bad financial situation. The company announced that it would cutting 6,500 jobs because of poor second quarter earnings showing their profits have dropped by 33 percent since last year. Politicians like Portland’s mayor Charlie Hales and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer also released statements denouncing the drilling in the Arctic.
The activists vowed to “double down” on their campaign against Arctic drilling and were encouraged by all the attention and support they received.
“People just came down by the scores to just fill the crowd. People were driving across the bridge, dropping off food and water for the climbers. We got emails of support from all around the world,” Leonard said. “I got messages from Argentina and Turkey, where people said that all around their offices and homes they were gathered around the TV watching this. I have never, in my 30 years of work as an environmental activist, seen this level of support coming in from locally and all around the world.”