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Climate showdown on the Willamette in Oregon

Activists target shipping hubs to influence fossil fuel development in Alaska.

 

It feels a bit like a picnic until the Coast Guard starts lunging at boats with a hooked metal pole.

Dozens of colorful kayaks and canoes on Portland, Oregon’s Willamette River have been chasing shade under the St. Johns Bridge all day, their floppy-hatted passengers laughing and shouting slogans. People are crammed so tight on one side of a nearby floating dock that it lists to the side and water laps onto its boards. Some cheer, while others hoist speakers on lengths of PVC pipe, blasting the union anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

Aside from a woman proudly holding a placard that reads: “Thank an oil company for all your protest/activist equipment,” it seems pretty clear which side most of the crowd favors. Thirteen Greenpeace activists dangle in climbing harnesses dozens of feet below the bridge. Their porta-ledges and stuffsacks, packed with days’ worth of supplies, are decorated with long red and yellow banners and giant signs reading “SHELL NO!” and "SAVE THE ARCTIC!" They and the kayaktivists, as the boaters have come to be called in recent months, are here to try to block the exit of the icebreaker MVS Fennica, which carries a key piece of safety equipment Royal Dutch Shell will need in order to move forward with oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the north coast of Alaska. And at 7:30 that morning, they had already succeeded in turning it back once from the Columbia River, its gateway to the Pacific. “That was a little bit yay,” Sue Lenander, a 350.org member who came down from Seattle to join the flotilla, tells me. “But we can only fight them off for a day or two. It’s just a matter of time.”

Danglers
Greenpeace activists dangle from the St. Johns bridge in Portland, Oregon.
Sarah Gilman

That time is arriving. A judge has ruled that Greenpeace will be fined $2,500 every hour that they block the ship’s path. The bridge has been closed so a ropes rescue crew can start messing with the climbers’ rigging. And I’ve gotten on the water in a borrowed kayak just as the police – with at least eight motorized boats – are beginning to force people back towards the beach with loudspeakered threats of arrest. “They got one!” someone yells as a protester is snagged, leaving an empty blue kayak bobbing on the river.

But even if the demonstration isn’t likely to last much longer, the grassroots environmental groups that organized it see any delay of the Fennica as a success. Thanks to the Arctic’s pack ice and grisly weather, “the drilling window is so short up there,” says Greenpeace spokeswoman Cassady Sharp. “Every second counts when they have so little time to do what they want to do.”

Groups also hope that raising the issue’s profile will build momentum behind efforts to get the Obama administration to rethink its approvals of Shell’s project. The company has been plagued by equipment troubles from the start. And the Fennica is in Portland for repairs after an unmapped Arctic shoal tore a hole in its hull – the latest mishap to stoke worries that neither the company nor the feds are prepared to deal with a spill in the biologically rich ecosystem, especially if it occurs beneath the sea ice in the deep of winter. Even the federal government admits that’s not a remote possibility: Its own analysis of Chukchi development predicts a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill within the next 77 years.

LaDon Deatherage appeared to be one of the few pro-Shell demonstrators at the rally. 'A woman in a wheelchair pushed me and threatened to throw me in the water,' she says.
Sarah Gilman
When I ask people why they’re here, though, most of them jump straight to climate change. Neither Oregon nor Washington really has coal or oil and gas of their own to keep in the ground. What they do have, though, are liberal politics and key transportation corridors and shipping ports that these resources must pass through in order to reach international markets. Or, in the case of the Fennica and other support equipment, to reach the site of extraction. And increasingly, local activists are exploiting those pinchpoints to try to force big changes in places where resource extraction has more support – like Alaska.

A few months ago, Lenander and other kayaktivists surrounded Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig in Puget Sound in hopes of delaying its trip to the Chukchi. Then there are the widespread efforts to block trains and proposed coastal shipping terminals that would deliver coal from Montana, Wyoming and other Interior West states to ships bound for Asian markets. Or those fighting terminals that would export liquified natural gas or even propane.

“If the federal government keeps leasing and mining fossil fuels, we have to stop them from getting on boats and going overseas,” says Nick Caleb, of the Portland-based Climate Action Coalition. “This is the best we can do for keeping people from going to that source.”

Back at the waterfront, a group of young men in red and black tank tops and baggy shorts drinking Pabst and smoking cigarettes observes the melee from a shady spot. “Man, the whole BRIDGE is shut down?!” one exclaims in disbelief. Then, sort of deadpan, “I get it though. When you gotta make a point...”

As they talk, a bundle of stuffsacks and gear, still bearing its ShellNo sign, slowly descends to the surface of the Willamette and the waiting police boats. The first of the climbers are being removed. In an hour, the Fennica will glide through the gap in the line they’ve held for 40 hours, on its way to the Arctic. Nobody knows that yet, though, and as I leave, a new ripple of excitement passes through the crowd. At the information tent, I learn why from Meredith Cocks of Portland Rising Tide. She’s hurrying to send a text, reading the words aloud as she thumbs her flip phone buttons: “Activist … has … locked … neck … to … railroad … bridge.” That one is between St. Johns and the dock where the ship still waits. The fight, it seems, still has some life in it.

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon. She tweets at @Sarah_Gilman.