Judge finds Greenpeace USA in contempt, sets escalating fines for bridge protest

  • By ELWOOD BREHMER
  • Thursday, July 30, 2015 12:42pm
  • News

Greenpeace USA must immediately get its activists out of the way of a vessel contracted to work in the Arctic for Shell or face fines ramping up each day until it does.

An annoyed-looking Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason imposed a fine of $2,500 per hour beginning at 10 a.m. Alaska Time Thursday on Greenpeace until the 13 environmental protesters dangling from ropes below the St. Johns Bridge across the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., pull themselves onto the bridge. The fines will escalate daily until reaching $10,000 per hour if they aren’t off the bridge by 10 a.m. on Aug. 2.

Gleason also found Greenpeace in civil contempt of court for violating an injunction she issued in May that prohibits Greenpeace from impeding any vessels working on Shell’s offshore Arctic drilling.

She made her ruling at approximately 9:45 a.m. Thursday, setting the fines to begin accruing 15 minutes later and disregarding a Greenpeace request for a three-hour grace period to get the activists up from below the bridge.

Gleason said she was “unpersuaded that a grace period is warranted” before the fines take effect because there is no assurance Greenpeace would follow the latest order.

The activists can be on top of the bridge, she said, but need to be off the ropes beneath the structure.

Greenpeace immediately appealed Gleason’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a hearing has been set for August.

Early Thursday before the hearing, the activists lowered themselves into the path of the icebreaker Fennica on its way from a Portland shipyard back to Alaska.

Greenpeace attorneys contended kayakers not associated with the environmental group got in the way of the vessel and the Fennica did not enter a 100-meter safety zone from the activists that would have violated the injunction.

Gleason said the evidence was “clear and convincing” that Greenpeace intended to violate the order, despite how close the Fennica actually got.

An email from the master of the ship Tommy Berg was filed with the court that stated the activists forced the Fennica to retreat.

“Please be advised that Fennica has made an attempt to sail for sea as instructed by Shell. However, the eNGO (environmental non-governmental organization) activists dangling from ropes off St. Johns Bridge clearly prevent the vessel from passing and cause a navigational hazard. We have thus decided to await further instructions,” Berg wrote.

The Fennica is a 380-foot ice-management vessel. It was in Portland for repairs after it sustained a three-foot gash in its hull when it hit a shoal leaving Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea July 3.

The hourly fines will increase $2,500 each day at 10 a.m. Alaska time until reaching $10,000 per hour the morning of Aug. 2, or when Greenpeace gets its employees out from under the bridge.

Shell first asked for fines of $2,500 per hour in a Wednesday hearing, which it says is equal to the contract rate it pays for the Fennica. In Thursday’s hearing the oil company’s representatives upped their request to $250,000 per day, arguing that Greenpeace uses its acts of protest as fundraising tools, which offsets smaller fines that might be levied against it.

Gleason said the progressive fines are intended to “coerce behavior that would have them leave.”

Gov. Bill Walker spoke with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Oregon Gov. Kay Brown’s chief of staff Thursday morning, according to a release from Walker’s office.

The governor urged Oregon’s leaders to stop the illegal protesting and allow Shell to conduct the activities it is permitted for.

“Alaska and the United States have the chance to be leaders in responsible offshore drilling in the Arctic,” Walker said in the release. “As our state faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, and an oil pipeline that is three-quarters empty, we would be foolish to turn away such significant economic opportunity. I hope that leaders from outside Alaska can understand and respect that.”

Shell’s two drilling vessels are in the Chukchi Sea and ready to drill, Shell and federal agency sources said July 29.

Shell has permission to drill “top holes,” or the upper parts of wells that do not penetrate potential oil-bearing formations, until the Fennica gets to the Arctic with the capping stack after its repairs.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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