Sunday, August 2, 2015

Judge finds Greenpeace USA in contempt, sets escalating fines for bridge protest

By Elwood Brehmer
Alaska Journal of Commerce

Activists hang off the St. Johns Bridge to protest Shell Oil's drilling in the Arctic, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. After the Shell-leased vessel Fennica turned away from the protesters Thursday morning, a federal judge in Alaska found Greenpeace USA in contempt of court and set fines that will begin at $2,500 per hour and escalate to $10,000 per hour if the protesters aren’t off the bridge by Sunday, Aug. 2.

Activists hang off the St. Johns Bridge to protest Shell Oil's drilling in the Arctic, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. After the Shell-leased vessel Fennica turned away from the protesters Thursday morning, a federal judge in Alaska found Greenpeace USA in contempt of court and set fines that will begin at $2,500 per hour and escalate to $10,000 per hour if the protesters aren’t off the bridge by Sunday, Aug. 2.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Greenpeace USA and Shell. According to the Greenpeace USA Twitter feed, the 13 support activists on the bridge have been removed by police, but the bridge danglers are still in place. Greenpeace USA wrote in its Twitter feed they would be staying "as long as possible." A live stream from Portland channel KGW at 2:45 pm Alaska time now indicates firefighters are attempting to remove the danglers. From the AP at 5 pm Alaska time: A Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker that was the target of environmental protesters is leaving Portland, Oregon, bound for an Arctic drilling operation. The Fennica headed out Thursday after authorities forced protesters in kayaks from a river and removed others dangling from a bridge.

Greenpeace USA must immediately get its activists out of the way of a vessel contracted to work in the Arctic for Shell or face fines ramping up each day until it does.

An annoyed-looking Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason imposed a fine of $2,500 per hour beginning at 10 a.m. Alaska Time Thursday on Greenpeace until the 13 environmental protesters dangling from ropes below the St. Johns Bridge across the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., pull themselves onto the bridge. The fines will escalate daily until reaching $10,000 per hour if they aren’t off the bridge by 10 a.m. on Aug. 2.

Gleason also found Greenpeace in civil contempt of court for violating an injunction she issued in May that prohibits Greenpeace from impeding any vessels working on Shell’s offshore Arctic drilling.

She made her ruling at approximately 9:45 a.m. Thursday, setting the fines to begin accruing 15 minutes later and disregarding a Greenpeace request for a three-hour grace period to get the activists up from below the bridge.

Gleason said she was “unpersuaded that a grace period is warranted” before the fines take effect because there is no assurance Greenpeace would follow the latest order.

The activists can be on top of the bridge, she said, but need to be off the ropes beneath the structure.

Greenpeace immediately appealed Gleason’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a hearing has been set for August.

Early Thursday before the hearing, the activists lowered themselves into the path of the icebreaker Fennica on its way from a Portland shipyard back to Alaska.

Greenpeace attorneys contended kayakers not associated with the environmental group got in the way of the vessel and the Fennica did not enter a 100-meter safety zone from the activists that would have violated the injunction.

Gleason said the evidence was “clear and convincing” that Greenpeace intended to violate the order, despite how close the Fennica actually got.

An email from the master of the ship Tommy Berg was filed with the court that stated the activists forced the Fennica to retreat.

“Please be advised that Fennica has made an attempt to sail for sea as instructed by Shell. However, the eNGO (environmental non-governmental organization) activists dangling from ropes off St. Johns Bridge clearly prevent the vessel from passing and cause a navigational hazard. We have thus decided to await further instructions,” Berg wrote. The Fennica is a 380-foot ice-management vessel. It was in Portland for repairs after it sustained a three-foot gash in its hull when it hit a shoal leaving Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea July 3.

The hourly fines will increase $2,500 each day at 10 a.m. Alaska time until reaching $10,000 per hour the morning of Aug. 2, or when Greenpeace gets its employees out from under the bridge.

Shell first asked for fines of $2,500 per hour in a Wednesday hearing, which it says is equal to the contract rate it pays for the Fennica. In Thursday’s hearing the oil company’s representatives upped their request to $250,000 per day, arguing that Greenpeace uses its acts of protest as fundraising tools, which offsets smaller fines that might be levied against it.

Gleason said the progressive fines are intended to “coerce behavior that would have them leave.”

The environmental group offered its reaction to the decision in a formal statement from Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard.

"Right now we're asking the activists what they think we should do next. As of this moment, the 26 activists will stay in place," Leonard said. "Shell is still trying to circumvent the growing global call to preserve the Arctic, and has turned to the courts for help. While we respect the courts, we also respect the increasingly urgent science that tells us Arctic oil needs to stay underground."

Shell was pleased with the outcome.

"We have consistently stated that we respect the right of individuals to protest our Arctic operations so long as they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law," wrote spokesperson Meg Baldino. "The staging of protesters in Portland was not safe nor was it lawful. Furthermore, Greenpeace demonstrated a complete lack of regard for the authority of a U.S. Federal Court. We are pleased with today’s court ruling that holds Greenpeace in contempt and prescribes fines for further non-compliance."

Gov. Bill Walker spoke with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff Thursday morning, according to a release from Walker’s office.

The governor urged Oregon’s leaders to stop the illegal protesting and allow Shell to conduct the activities it is permitted for.

“Alaska and the United States have the chance to be leaders in responsible offshore drilling in the Arctic,” Walker said in the release. “As our state faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, and an oil pipeline that is three-quarters empty, we would be foolish to turn away such significant economic opportunity. I hope that leaders from outside Alaska can understand and respect that.”

Shell’s two drilling vessels are in the Chukchi Sea and ready to drill, Shell and federal agency sources said July 29.

Shell has permission to drill “top holes,” or the upper parts of wells that do not penetrate potential oil-bearing formations, until the Fennica gets to the Arctic with the capping stack after its repairs.