Dozens of activists with Greenpeace and Rising Tide blockaded the mouth of Portland’s Willamette River Thursday, dangling from a bridge and swarming the waters – all in an effort to prevent Shell from launching a ship it needs to begin advanced drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic.
The bold plan seems to working, too. As the sun bobbed up over the Pacific, one of the activists on the bridge shot footage of Shell’s ice breaker appearing to turn back as cheers erupted from a group of supporters.
Under the terms of Shell’s drilling plan, approved in May by the Obama administration, the company has to have the ship on site because it carries a special Arctic-ready spill containment system. No ship, no drilling – that’s why activists have decided to make this stand now.
The bridge-danglers are in hammock-like pouches, dropped from the 408-foot structure. Other protesters slipped into kayaks -- dubbing themselves "kayaktivists." They hope to put a brighter bulb in the spotlight on Shell’s work— and the Obama administration’s decision to approve it. And they have enough supplies to last several days, according to activists on the ground.
"We're in a standoff now," Meredith Cocks, an organizer with the Portland chapter of Rising Tide, told msnbc in a phone interview. "There is no Plan B, just as there is no Planet B," the group said in a statement.
The daring intervention could mark a tumultuous new chapter in the call for action on climate change.
"Escalation is what is needed," one supporter wrote on social media, earning a re-tweet from Greenpeace USA. "Flood, blockade, occupy and shut down the systems that jeopardize our future," Rising Tide says on a new website, calling for mass actions on an unprecedented scale.
The protests coincide with Shell's second quarter earnings report, which shows a $2.3 billion drop in profits. Thousands of layoffs are planned, among other adjustments, adding urgency to oil giant's push to explore the Arctic.
Other companies have given up or delayed their efforts in the region, leaving Shell a potential prize of vast significance: the equivalent of 29 billion barrels of oil and gas, according to federal estimates. The company has poured ten years and more than seven billion dollars into the effort – all without pumping a single drop.
Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an interview earlier this month with msnbc, however, spokesperson Curtis Smith expressed confidence in Arctic exploration and exasperation over the shifting tactics and logic of Shell’s opposition.
“They’ve tried everything over the years. They’ve tried everything,” he said. “They teamed up with Coca Cola to try to make it a polar bear issue, and now it’s a walrus issue, and then there wasn’t enough science—and now it’s a climate change issue. It’s everything. Whatever sticks on the wall has been used to stop this.”
Shell has broad federal approval to work until September 28, assuming they can get the Fennica into position and win final permits for the drilling itself. The company hopes to sink at least one drill bit this season, confirm the presence of oil and prepare a wellhead for production next summer – before the company’s leases start expiring in 2017.
The activists hope to delay the company's progress as much as possible. In addition to occupying the bridge and the water, they are gathering in a park on the banks of the river. Police have blocked nearby roads and portions of the bridge to vehicle traffic, activists told msnbc, but supporters of the "Shell No" movement continued to arrive on foot.
This isn’t just about polar bears anymore, they argue. It’s about the survival of civilization, and the need to change everything in the face of catastrophic climate change.
The journal Nature helped galvanize the protests with a stunning research letter published earlier this year. To avert some of the worst outcomes, the authors concluded “all Arctic resources should be considered as unburnable.”