Rob Lewis guest writes this report.
SEATTLE—During his March 17 appeal hearing, Matt Fuller delivered a detailed and unapologetic defense of his 22-hour occupation of the anchor chain on the Arctic Challenger, a drilling-support vessel for Shell Oil Company.
Fuller’s family and friends attended the hearing before a U.S. Coast Guard officer, on the 34th floor of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building. He was appealing a citation and a $10,000 fine he received for violating a 100-yard “safety zone” around the Arctic Challenger when it was moored in May 2015 in Bellingham Harbor. Fuller climbed onto the vessel’s anchor chain as part of a local citizen effort to keep it from leaving port, in order to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic. Since Shell’s permit required the presence of the Arctic Challenger for drilling to commence, and since Shell only had a 100-day window for drilling in the usually ice-bound Chukchi Sea, activists saw preventing the ship’s departure as a viable way to prevent the drilling.
Fuller’s legal strategy centers on what’s called a “necessity defense,” which will become more central if he appeals the fine to federal court. Fuller’s attorney, Amanda Schemkes, began by outlining the four elements of a necessity defense, also called a “choice of evils” or justification defense. In order to establish such a defense, Schmenke said a party must demonstrate: (1) they were faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser evil; (2) they acted to prevent imminent harm; (3) they reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted; and (4) they had no legal alternatives to violating the law. Then she reminded the Coast Guard that their mission includes protecting the seas themselves and implored them to honor that mission.
Then Fuller spoke. He described his work as a graduate student in environmental studies at the Evergreen State College, establishing that he understood thoroughly the threat posed by Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, not only to Arctic sea life and local indigenous cultures, but to the global climate. The choice of evils was clear. He also pointed out that the US Department of Defense had listed climate change as “the single, greatest long-term threat to national security”
“I know the Coast Guard knows this,” Fuller said.
As to the harm being imminent, the Arctic Challenger was scheduled to leave any day. Reasonable expectation of a direct causal relationship? “We knew that every day we kept the Arctic Challenger at port was a day Shell could not drill in the Arctic,” said Fuller.
As to all legal means being exhausted, Fuller described his work as an intern with the Washington state Department of Ecology during the scoping process for the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. An unprecedented number of comments had been received by DOE, overwhelmingly opposing to the coal port, yet Fuller overheard DOE officials saying those comments would not likely change the outcome. Having seen how little effect public involvement can have on the regulatory process, and after years of legal climate activism and citizen journalism, Fuller saw that direct action was the only hope for preventing the “greater evil” of Arctic drilling.
He also spoke against Shell itself, pointing out that members of Congress had recently called for a federal investigation into whether Shell conspired to mislead the public and its investors about the risks of a destabilizing climate. An LA Times investigation revealed that in 1989 Shell funded climate deniers even as it redesigned a drilling platform in the North Sea to deal with rising seas.
Commander Klinke asked if Shell had ever begun drilling, apparently unaware that Shell had ended drilling operations in the Arctic. Fuller explained how Shell, after receiving unsatisfactory results from initial drilling, had decided to abandon the program, citing an “uncertain regulatory environment.” This uncertainty resulted from citizen pressure, according to Fuller.
Fuller was in Olympia working on his master’s degree when, on May 22, 2015, he heard fellow activist Chiara D’Angelo had climbed the vessel’s anchor chain. He dropped everything and came to Bellingham to see how he could help out.
It wasn’t long before he joined D’Angelo on the chain, both to provide support and to show how broad the sentiment was against Arctic drilling. Equipped with warm clothes, a climbing harness and a hand-carved cedar two-by-four to stand on, Fuller stayed on the chain 22 hours before agreeing to come down. D’Angelo, who had a hammock, persisted another night, staying on the chain for 63 hours straight. She was later cited and fined $20,000 for her “safety zone” violation. Her appeal hearing before Commander Klinke in the same Seattle federal building was Feb. 29. As of Tuesday, March 22, she was still awaiting the Coast Guard’s decision.
Two others received fines and citations: Paul Adler, who ran a small zodiac-style boat to support the Arctic Challenger activists; and Chiara D’Angelo’s mother, Debra D’Angelo. The Civil Liberties Defense Center and the Climate Disobedience Center have been supporting them in their effort to contest their fines.
Fuller, like Chiara D’Angelo, must wait 10 days or more for the outcome of his appeal. At the conclusion of his hearing, Fuller urged the Coast Guard to aim for a higher cause. He said we are witnessing the beginning of an historic shift away from fossil fuels toward solar and other renewable sources of energy.
“I ask the Coast Guard to stand on the right side of history,” Fuller said.
Rob Lewis is a writer/activist who has written about and participated in the local and regional resistance to Shell's Arctic drilling campaign.