Portland’s Swan Island basin was still and remarkably quiet Saturday as a flotilla of kayakers dipped their paddles in and out of the water, pulling themselves north toward the Vigorous, the largest dry dock in America.
Then, with a cry, a drumbeat began. One hundred paddles smacked the water, and people yelled, “Shell no!”
It was a moment of spontaneous drama in an otherwise meticulously planned floating protest of Shell’s imminent plan to drill exploratory wells for oil in the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic, and the Obama administration’s decision to issue Shell the environmental permits to proceed.
“It’s a pristine area that shouldn’t be touched,” said Portland chiropractor and kayaker Mariam Fish. “There are alternatives to fossil fuels that are not being explored adequately and supported by the government. It’s time to do that.”
The protest was organized by Climate Action Coalition, 350 PDX and Portland Rising Tide, and drew kayakers from Portland, Longview, Washington, and Seattle.
Their target was the Fennica, an icebreaking ship in Shell’s fleet that was damaged on its way to the drill site and arrived in Portland early Saturday morning for repairs.
The ship is carrying a key piece of blow-out response equipment called a capping stack. Federal regulators have said Shell can start its work drilling two exploratory wells immediately, but the company will not be permitted to drill into petroleum-bearing rock until the Fennica and the capping stack are on site.
When the flotilla reached the Fennica, the protesters unfurled banners that read “Climate Justice” and “You Shell Not Pass” and spent close to an hour staging photographs in front of the ship. Tiny spheres of green algae stained the Willamette and a large screen hung over the entrance to the dry dock, largely shielding the icebreaker from view.
Shell expects to have the Fennica repaired and in the Chukchi Sea by mid to late August. Climate change activists have suggested in Facebook posts and in interviews on the water that they may try to delay the ship.
“We are going to expect more resistance against this ship leaving Portland,” said Meredith Cocks, an organizer with the group Portland Rising Tide. “It is pivotal to them to continue drilling in the Arctic this summer, and if we slow that down, then we can slow down the inevitable extraction of oil.”
A private security boat idled near the drydock and broadcast a brief warning, but otherwise left the protesters alone. A small Coast Guard team from Seattle watched the protest from a nearby dock.
“We have a 100-yard safety zone we have to enforce, and as long as people comply with that, we’re all for this demonstration,” said William Worth, a maritime enforcement specialist with the Coast Guard.
And then the protesters paddled back to the Swan Island boat ramp and returned to shore.