The Polar Pioneer floats on its pontoons surrounded by tugs and other support vessels in Port Angeles Harbor last week. (Keith Thorpe/Copyright &Copy; 2015

The Polar Pioneer floats on its pontoons surrounded by tugs and other support vessels in Port Angeles Harbor last week. (Keith Thorpe/Copyright &Copy; 2015

Polar Pioneer could stay longer than expected in Port Angeles; Shell reviewing Seattle City Hall’s move to block oil rig’s planned arrival

PORT ANGELES — The Polar Pioneer­ may be staying in Port Angeles Harbor longer than planned after Seattle’s mayor said his city’s port must apply for a new permit before it can host the oil rig.

The mobile oil rig has been anchored in Port Angeles since April 17 and was scheduled to be towed to Seattle sometime this week.

That is no longer possible because the Seattle Department of Planning and Development has issued a code interpretation stating an additional use permit is required before the Polar Pioneer — and two accompanying tugboats — can moor at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 facility as scheduled, Mayor Ed Murray announced at an environmental group’s breakfast Monday.

The Polar Pioneer had been scheduled to be anchored there briefly before a planned trip north to the Arctic Ocean.

The 400-foot-long, 355-feet-tall rig owned by Transocean Ltd. is being leased by Royal Dutch Shell, the parent company of Shell Oil Co., and is one of two drill rigs the company hopes to use for exploratory drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s northern shore.

After the drilling season is over, plans called for it to return to Seattle’s Terminal 5 where it would be at anchor for at least six months during the winter months.

The Department of Planning and Development announced Monday that storing oil rigs is not included in the 20-year-old permit for Terminal 5.

“It is not a cargo terminal use [as it] is permitted for now,” said Bryan Stevens of the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

“There are certain accessory functions that can occur in relation to a cargo terminal, but this went beyond that.”

Since it is not a cargo terminal use, “we need to talk to the port about what the most appropriate use classification is and then determine what that permit process would be like,” Stevens said.

“The next step is for the Port [of Seattle] to communicate with us if they plan on continuing to move forward or not,” Stevens said.

The ensuing permitting process, “depending on where that conversation goes, could be anywhere from a few weeks to several months,” Stevens noted.

“It really depends on how that use is classified and whether it somehow triggers a public permit process or not.”

That could mean the Polar Pioneer may stay in Port Angeles indefinitely until a new permit is granted, though Shell Oil has not publicly commented on what it plans to do next.

“We are reviewing the interpretations” of the code statement, said Megan Baldino, Shell spokeswoman.

“I expect the port to obtain all required city permits before any moorage or work begins at T5 on offshore oil drilling equipment,” Murray said.

“While requiring a new permit may not stop the port’s plans, it does give the port an opportunity to pause and rethink this issue.”

The Noble Discoverer, a drill ship also on its way to Seattle, is expected to arrive there in mid-May.

It will not moor in Terminal 5, According to the Department of Planning and Development.

Information about what terminal the Noble Discoverer is slated for, and if it too will be affected by the code interpretation, was not available Monday.

The code interpretation will be formally posted online to the Department of Planning and Development website later this week.

When that happens, there will be a 14-day appeal period to reverse the decision.

If Shell Oil decides to leave the Polar Pioneer here while the permitting process proceeds, or to reroute the Noble Discoverer here, there would be plenty of space to accommodate them both.

“There is five anchorages in the harbor,” said Lt. Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Seattle.

“It works kind of like a hotel. The ships would make reservations in advance” with the Coast Guard traffic service.

“However, if the Noble Discoverer was to arrive, it can be accommodated with the Polar Pioneer in place as long as other commercial traffic isn’t already there.”

Such a presence would be welcomed by the Port of Port Angeles.

“We are delighted to have them here while they are here,” said Port of Port Angeles Executive Director Ken O’Hollaren.

“There is no question that the Polar Pioneer’s presence here in the harbor has had a significant economic impact on the area, so we hope to be able to accommodate that line of the business here in the future.”

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or cmcdaniel@peninsuladailynews.com.

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