Combined, Chiara D’Angelo and Matt Fuller spent 88 hours last spring on the anchor chain of the Arctic Challenger. The vessel was docked in Bellingham Bay at the time preparing for a trip to the Arctic Sea, where it would support Royal Dutch Shell’s exploratory oil drilling operation.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard will try to extract its pound of flesh. Well, if not literally flesh then something just as unreasonable.
The Coast Guard fined D’Angelo, a senior at Western Washington University, $20,000 for violating the safety zone of the Arctic Challenger during her stay on the chain.
D’Angelo, who turns 21 on Feb. 28, climbed on the chain on Friday evening, May 22, 2015, and didn’t come down until 66 hours later, on Monday morning, May 25. One hell of a Memorial Day weekend.
Fuller, 38, who accompanied D’Angelo on the chain for 22 of those hours, was fined $10,000 by the Coast Guard. Fuller is finishing his master’s thesis at the Evergreen State College and manages a new community radio station in Bellingham, 94.9 FM KVWV.
D’Angelo and Fuller will seek to have their fines thrown out. D’Angelo has a hearing at 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 29, in Seattle. She will appear before an officer who will hear her via video teleconference from Arlington, Va.
Fuller’s hearing date hadn’t been set as of Wednesday, Feb. 17. He has a March 4 hearing for a $2,500 fine he received for putting himself in the path of the Polar Pioneer in June in Elliott Bay, Seattle.
D’Angelo was the headline figure in the Bellingham Bay action, which she initiated to protest the danger oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea would pose to indigenous cultures there, and the more global threat of the climate change that would be induced by burning oil extracted from under the sea.
Her 2-day, 3-night ordeal was a signature moment of climate disobedience in 2015, and it got the attention of media all over the world. The photo of her in a life jacket and sandals, one hand holding a sign that read “Save the Arctic,” the other hand raised in a fist, is an indelible image.
The Coast Guard monitored D’Angelo and Fuller closely, from their ship maybe 100 yards away. At night, every time the two activists moved a muscle in their awkward positions, the Coast Guard shined a bright spotlight on them, disturbing what little rest they were getting.
Fuller, who was straining to find comfort on a cedar two-by-four, got down from the chain to better support D’Angelo, he said. They only had one hammock, and she should have it, he figured. Plus, he could relay her message and her goals to the support team on the shore.
After D’Angelo, exhausted and near-hypothermic, got down with the Coast Guard’s assistance, she didn’t think she would be fined at all. This was her recollection during an interview on Monday, Feb. 15.
“I really thought it wasn’t a good political move to fine me at my age,” D’Angelo said, suggesting that the Coast Guard would only come across as a bully for trying to extract its pound of flesh from a college student without a job.
“I wasn’t by any means expecting a $20,000 fine, especially after Shell had pulled out of the Arctic. I thought that was a sign the political climate had moved in our favor.”
D’Angelo said the exorbitant fine is intended as a deterrent.
“The (Coast Guard’s) goal is so I or no one feels inspired to do that again,” D’Angelo said.
“I don’t want people to be deterred. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. We have to start living by a moral principle, protecting … ecological systems that have known this earth so much longer than us.”
Fuller said his fine for the Polar Pioneer action was raised from $250 specifically because activist groups are fundraising to support payment of fines. Asked whether groups are raising funds for him and D’Angelo, Fuller would only say his intention is to have the fine dropped altogether.
“We didn’t do anything except what was necessary for preventing that ship from going up to the Arctic,” Fuller said.
It seemed more reasonable to Fuller and D’Angelo that Shell pay the Coast Guard for escorting the oil company’s ships from Puget Sound to Alaska.
When asked to explain the severity of the fines, Coast Guard spokeswoman Amanda Norcross emailed a response:
“While the Coast Guard supports and defends the rights of the public to assemble peacefully and protest, prolonged violations of the safety zones tax Coast Guard resources and crews, and hinder our ability to quickly respond to mariners in distress or other life-threatening emergencies. The prolonged safety violations also unnecessarily put the protesters and law enforcement personnel at risk due to rapidly changing environmental conditions, fatigue and marine traffic.”
Looking beyond D’Angelo and Fuller’s cases, environmentalists appear to be the winner in their conflict with Shell. The oil company suspended its arctic drilling operation in September. Bloomberg Business reported at the time that the cratering price of oil had a lot to do with that.
The business website reported on Sept. 28 that Shell believed Chukchi Sea oil would be “competitive” at $70 a barrel, but Shell was hoping for more like $110 a barrel when full-scale Arctic drilling could begin, sometime around 2030.
Shell analysts reportedly were no longer optimistic about the $110-per-barrel projection. As of Wednesday, Feb. 17, crude was less than $35 a barrel.
Another reason Shell got out, Bloomberg Business reported, was to save money in the short term. Shell had already spent $7 billion just to get ready for the one season of exploratory drilling the Arctic Challenger was to support.
Compared to what oil companies have gotten used to in recent years, these are mighty lean times for Shell. It only netted $1.9 billion in 2015, an 87 percent decline in profits over the previous year.
Meanwhile, D’Angelo must contemplate paying the Coast Guard $20,000 -- only 0.001 percent of Shell’s 2015 profit, but an inconceivable sum to a student who is making ends meet by sleeping in a camper parked at a friend’s house.
"I think about my case almost nonstop. It's haunting,” D’Angelo said.
"Any time I think about it, it makes me feel sick."
Yet one gets a strong sense from the buzz around D’Angelo, both in person and in social media, that she’s not facing her problem alone. She and Fuller got a boost when lawyers from the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Oregon took their case pro bono.
"The generosity of the community is really beautiful," she said.
D’Angelo made the news a couple years back with a similarly long tree-sit in her home city of Bainbridge Island, but she said she would be happy to never do another such protest again.
“It may seem like this is my identity, but I’m not that,” D’Angelo said of those highly publicized actions. “I’m a full-time activist. I work full time on these issues. … I would prefer not to do anything like this ever again. It’s just something I’m forced to do because of the political climate.”