Photo Courtesy Sprague Theobald
Russian trawler near Greenland finds ample open water in a formerly ice-bound channel.
Video by Sprague Theobald

The Port of Seattle this winter has been locked in a discussion about oil drilling in the Arctic after approving a short-term lease with Foss Maritime, whose clients include Royal Dutch Shell PLC, to use part of Terminal 5 to stage marine vessels.

The agreement with Foss opens up the port to housing ships planned for Arctic oil-drilling exploration, environmental groups say.

Sprague Theobald, a two-time Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and expert sailor, has voyaged through the Arctic's Northwest Passage and notes that, as climate change reconfigures the ice-laden Arctic, drilling for oil in the region will become more feasible.

That possibility should be a cause for concern, he says. Instead of sending crews out to explore for oil, big companies working in the region should be learning about it by surveying more and enacting protective measures, Theobald suggests.

"The passage itself and a great deal of the Arctic isn't charted," he says. "A lot of work needs to be done. They need to understand the bottom [of the Arctic Ocean floor] a lot more."

Moving equipment through the passage proves to be a tricky endeavor as new ice forms and old ice melts. Construction will continue to take its toll on the region because there are no "ground rules or monitoring in place" for those looking for resources—oil, nickel, magnesium, diamonds and zinc, which are just "under the surface for the taking," says Theobald.

"The Arctic is so fragile," Theobald says. "So much needs to be done."

Foss Maritime plans to use its portion of Terminal 5 to stage, load and outfit marine assets for Shell's Arctic exploration. The company also could use the terminal to support other energy projects.

While the port is working on long-term plans to renovate the terminal to handle larger ships, it also is looking for an interim user for the space.

Patti Goldman—an attorney with Earthjustice, the Seattle law firm representing a coalition of environmental groups seeking to block Foss from leasing space—sent to the port a letter calling for reconsideration of the lease.