SEATTLE — Protesters opposed to Arctic oil drilling are preparing to paddle out in kayaks to meet Shell's massive offshore drilling rig as it arrives any day now in Seattle, raising the stakes in the battle over oil exploration in the remote Arctic Ocean.
The petroleum giant says it is moving ahead with plans to use leased space at the Port of Seattle to load its drilling rigs and other vessels with supplies and personnel as it prepares to explore for oil this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast.
That's despite the city saying the Port of Seattle needs a new permit before it can host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet and the city warning that the port and Foss Maritime, a local company that's working with Shell, could potentially face fines for unpermitted activity.
One of the drill rigs it plans to use — the 400-foot long Polar Pioneer — left Port Angeles early Thursday and is expected in Seattle later in the day.
The Peninsula Daily News reported the Polar Pioneer began moving out of Port Angeles at about 1:40 a.m. Thursday for the approximate 12-hour trip to Seattle.
John Sellers, 48, who works with an advocacy group on economic justice issues, paddled out to meet the Polar Pioneer when it arrived in Port Angeles and now hopes to do the same when it arrives in Seattle's Elliott Bay.
"It's the perfect tactic to paddle out and meet the rigs on the water," he said. "The rigs are on the water, that's where they do their business, that's where they're doing their damage."
He said he wants to push for change toward a clean-energy future that moves away from fossil fuels.
Environmentalists are planning a three-day so-called "festival of resistance" starting Saturday. Smaller groups of experienced kayakers have also been training to confront the rigs when they arrive in Elliott Bay, though many said they plan to observe safety zones that the Coast Guard has set up around the ships.
"There's a sense of gravitas around this moment," said Bill Moyer, who has been helping train protesters in paddling techniques and kayak safety for the demonstration scheduled for Saturday dubbed the "Paddle in Seattle."
"It's hard to see where normal people can have an impact on something as vast and seemingly distant as climate and the Arctic," said Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign.
"So this moment is historic opportunity for regular people to demonstrate their desire for a pivot away from fossil fuels," he said of Saturday's protest.
Shell's drilling program cleared a major bureaucratic hurdle Monday when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved its multi-year exploration plan in the Chukchi Sea. The company must still obtain other permits from state and federal agencies, including one to drill from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
But Shell spokesman Curtis Smith has said the approval "is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan."