WASHINGTON (CN) – Fearing environmental activists will try to board or divert 19 Arctic oil drilling ships, the U.S. Coast Guard established a 500 yard no-go zone around the vessels as they pass through Washington’s Puget Sound.
The ships have been staged in Seattle, Wa., for the summer drilling season where several have also undergone extensive retrofitting.
Citing a spate of recent unsafe and illegal demonstrations tactics, including actress Lucy Lawless’ February boarding of the Noble Discoverer in New Zealand, the Coast Guard said the no-go zone is need to protect the safety of protesters, the drilling ships and other shipping traffic.
“While the Coast Guard respects the First Amendment rights of protesters, it is clear that certain unlawful protest activity poses a danger to the life and safety of protesters, target vessels, and other legitimate waterway users. The Coast Guard must take swift action to prevent such harm,” the Guard said in a Federal Register notice.
The Coast Guard said that Greenpeace has identified ships being used by Shell and British Petroleum as targets for boarding and that the advocacy group Alaska Wilderness League had chartered a boat to observe retrofitting of Shell’s mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk at a Seattle shipyard.
A common tactic used by activists is to put kayaks, or swimmers and other small boats in front of ships to slow or divert them while teams of protesters try to board them. The Coast Guard said that given the size of the ships this could have fatal results for the protesters, cause severe damage to the vessels if they run aground, or cause environmental damage if they divert into ecologically sensitive areas.
The Puget Sound safety zones are separate from those established by a federal judge in Alaska earlier this year which specifically prohibit Greenpeace from coming within 500 to 1,000 meters of the ships when they are within 12 miles of shore. The Coast Guard stressed that it is not required to enforce that injunction and that its rules apply to all vessels whether or not they are acting on behalf of Greenpeace.
Once the drilling ships arrive in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, they are protected by a separate Coast Guard imposed safety zone. Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act violations of the safety zone are subject to fines of up to $100,000 and up to 10 years in jail.
The Puget Sound safety zone went into immediate effect and expires on Aug. 1.