Greenpeace protesters dangling from a bridge in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday forced back an icebreaker that Royal Dutch Shell needs in Alaska to start drilling in the Arctic.
The 13 Greenpeace protesters, who rappelled down from the bridge over the Willamette River early on Wednesday, are hoping to shorten Shell’s Arctic drilling season by stopping the Fennica icebreaker, which is carrying emergency equipment that would cap any blown-out well.
Shell is not allowed to start drilling without it and the drilling season ends in October, when sea ice encroaches.
Greenpeace says Arctic drilling could be damaging to populations of whales, polar bears and walrus if there is an oil spill.
The activists are the latest group to stage waterborne demonstrations over the past three months in a bid to block Shell vessels from heading north, following similar demonstrations in Seattle and other Washington state port areas.
The Fennica stalled once it neared the St. John’s bridge on the Willamette, which leads to the Pacific Ocean. Protesters lowered themselves with ropes to prevent the ship from passing under the span, forcing the vessel back to port.
By late Thursday morning, more than two dozen kayakers were also on the river flanked by protesters dangling from ropes with large red and yellow banners chanting “Shell No” as a Coast Guard boat stood watch. The bridge has been opened to road and water traffic, and protesters are letting all other vessels pass under the bridge.
Onlookers sympathetic to the protests, including a young woman playing a piano, filled a nearby park and occasionally cheered in support.
“When that ship turned, that was history,” said kayaker Michael Foster.
The U.S. Coast Guard issued warnings to the protesters, saying they were unwelcome, trespassing and violating the safety zone.
“Our primary concern is for the safety of the individuals on the water,” Coast Guard Petty Officer George Degener said. “We want them to understand we want them to exercise those First Amendment rights but we want them to be safe.”
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company respects the rights of individuals to protest. “We just ask that they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law,” he said.
Shell hopes to return to the Arctic for the first time since 2012, when it experienced a series of mishaps including the grounding of an oil rig.