The Morality of Protecting Shell Oil

Nicholas Caleb

The Morality of Protecting Shell Oil

Photo Credit: Gregory Sotir

For almost 40 hours, Portland was the epicenter of the global struggle to prevent climate chaos as thirteen Greenpeace climbers, a flotilla of kayaks, and local activist Jonah Majure attempted to block Shell’s Fennica icebreaker vessel from reaching the Arctic.

As the community rallied in support of the direct action, lending supplies and their bodies to the cause, it seemed that Portland might actually be able to delay the ship for a significant period of time. This seemed even more possible when the ship was forced to turn back after its first attempt to cross under the St. John’s Bridge. Climbers had days worth of supplies and community support was flooding into Cathedral Park. Also, Portland had a mayor who had been talking almost non-stop for the last month about the moral imperative to act locally on climate change! The situation was almost too perfect and the historical moment was set.

You see, the mayor had recently had a conversion of sorts after facing strong community opposition to a propane export terminal that he had initially supported before changing his mind. Months later, he was invited as a part of a contingent of mayors that met with the Pope about their moral responsibilities to take strong local climate action. The mayor described the conference as adding "a moral dimension to what has been a scientific and political debate up to now on climate." Though people have been talking about the moral implications of climate change for decades, this apparently was new information for the mayor and many hoped that his apparent awakening would lead to stronger action.

So, when Shell came to town to have its icebreaker’s hull fixed at Vigor Industrial (run by major Hales campaign contributor Frank Foti), it presented a perfect opportunity to see exactly what moral action means to Charlie Hales.

In short, it turned out to be allowing our local police to temporarily close off Cathedral Park to members of the community who wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights (order later rescinded after legal opposition) and authorizing the Portland police to participate in an extremely dangerous set of maneuvers to extract the climbers and clear the kayakers. This was all done in the name of safety. In this calculus of safety, no mention was made of the millions of individuals whose lives will be destroyed by catastrophic climate change; the safety that those hanging from the bridge and floating in kayaks set out to ensure.

In explaining his thought process, the mayor told OPB: “There’s a point at which any First Amendment exercise occupying public space is eventually going to have to be ended and life has to go on.” In this case, “life going on” means the near certainty that Shell with drill the Arctic, risk a major spill that would be near impossible to clean up, and continue to push us over the climate cliff. As Mayor Hales will have heard hundreds if not thousands of times by now, we have to take drastic action to leave fossil fuels in the ground to have even a small chance at preventing runaway global heating and catastrophic climate change. He heard it again and again from activists, community members, and scientists during the campaign to stop the Pembina propane export terminal and throughout the Climate Action Plan update process. He heard it from the Pope.

He (well, his account) also Tweeted: “Yesterday was a victory for @Greenpeace, for 1st Amendment, for #PDX. Next” turning protest into action[.]” It’s hard to comprehend how a successful blockade of a ship headed to the Arctic to drill isn’t considered “action”. The ship could not get through the blockade. It had to turn around. One wonders what sort of worldview it takes to believe that devoting energy and resources to removing such a blockade in favor of talking about future policy in the abstract can be seen as “action” that would further the goal of the climate movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is also difficult to understand why policy is seen as mutually exclusive to strong community action instead of being viewed as synergistic.

The obvious truth is that the blockade was action: direct action. People found a solution for a problem which needed solving that didn’t require wading through a broken political system. They found a geopolitical choke point at the St. John’s Bridge and non-violently resisted the destruction of the planet. Rather than supporting these people, our local officials aided in disrupting that action so that Shell could drill the Arctic. Fennica would still be at port if not for the support of our local officials. It’s insanity to suggest that returning to a juridico-political process that has utterly failed to respond to climate science’s warnings is the real action. Climbers and kayakers didn’t stand in front of the Fennica to passively protest or start a conversation. They showed up because of a desperate realization that we are out of time and we have to act to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Were our political actors capable of policy that could ward off climate catastrophe, such action would be wholly unnecessary. Alas…

In Seattle, city action against Shell’s Arctic oil drilling rig in May looked quite different from what Hales (and Kate Brown) had in mind: Mayor Ed Murray challenged Shell’s permit status at the Port of Seattle, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called Greenpeace activists who boarded the oil drilling rig to express support for their action and marched with protestors to shut down the entrance to terminal 5 (where the rig was docked), and Councilperson Mike O’Brien was detained because he joined kayakers in an attempt to block the rig from leaving to the Arctic. Ultimately, those actions did not prevent the Arctic drilling rig from reaching its destination, but those were moral acts. Those officials opposed arctic drilling and tried to delay it as long as possible. Were our mayor to do any of these things, we might still have a blockade. At the very least, simply not authorizing police participation in a dangerous extraction of vulnerable climbers would have been entirely reasonable under the circumstances. We were in a stronger position to stop Shell than Seattle was and the national spotlight was shining.

Importantly, Shell only has a narrow window to drill in the Arctic. And, the Fennica is mission critical equipment; Shell can’t drill without it. So, in Portland, any prolonged delay of this ship would have meant a huge payoff in terms of reducing the risk to the planet, impacting Shell’s corporate profits, and allowing more time and media attention to pressure President Obama to reverse course and rescind the drill permit. The rush to extract the climbers and forcefully push kayaks from the river completely obliterated this opportunity and the best we can hope for is that President Obama will change his mind now that the national media attention has largely dwindled.

In the era of extreme energy and impending climate catastrophe, acting morally on climate requires one to take extraordinary risks to shift the current societal trajectory away from mass environmental destruction. In the case of the climbers and kayakers, it meant repeatedly putting their fragile human bodies directly in front of the industrial equipment that will be used to extract the oil that needs to stay under the ocean floor. When his moment to be a moral actor came calling, Charlie Hales chose the safe route and used his power of office to dutifully escort the Fennica icebreaker out of Portland so that Shell could safely drill the arctic.

As Bill McKibben wrote in the Nation, “People Will Remember Shell Oil As a Symbol of Planet-Destroying Greed.” In Portland, many will remember Charlie Hales as the mayor who took moral action by authorizing the use of force to aid Shell in its planet-destroying greed... even though, he later confessed, it was a “hard day”. Perhaps it was a hard day because the mayor knew exactly what he should have done and couldn’t bring himself to act. After Fennica left, the mayor declared the day a victory for all, even though Shell will almost certainly drill the Arctic, and now he gets to meet with the President about – you guessed it – climate action. With the way that the mayor is publicly celebrating this meeting and taking credit for successes that don’t belong to him (as he did when he met with the Pope, Obama, and Dalai Lama), one might gather that acting in a way that gets you in the same room as important people for publicity and photo ops is what really matters to him anyway.

Surely, at this pivotal point in history, we can find better moral leadership than this. The Pope certainly didn’t convene leaders for a photo op. He convened them because he sought to inspire moral action.

Luckily, real climate leadership is all around us outside of the halls of power. Rather than waiting for mediocre men to break their patterns of political calculation and develop the courage to act morally, residents are organizing themselves to fight to win.

As Mia Reback recently wrote in an article called Welcome to #Blockadia:

The Pacific Northwest is the proposed staging ground for 28 new fossil fuel projects — which if all built would have the impact of 5 Keystone XL Pipelines! Leading scientists tell us that if we let these projects be built, it will be game over for the climate and life as we know it.

People are fighting back. Together, faith, environmental and social justice activists are forming a green line of resistance to keep these fossil fuels in the ground and out of our atmosphere — something global scientists tell us we need to do to avoid climate catastrophe.

I count myself lucky to live among so many people who continually demonstrate that they will rise to the occasion and take real moral action at this crucial point in human history. The stakes are high, the challenges are enormous, but the ground below us is shifting. There couldn't have been a clearer contrast between real moral action and political opportunism than when Portland rose up to say #ShellNo!

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