‘Buffer Zones’ Devised to Keep Protesters From Shell’s Fleet

Final approvals for Shell Oil’s exploration season in the Chukchi Sea are expected in the coming days. And while the company is struggling to secure a home port for its ships in Seattle, they’re still set to head north by June.

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Now, the Coast Guard in Alaska is proposing a set of navigational buffer zones for when fleet arrives.

The zones would cover an estimated 28 oil support vessels inUnalaska and Dutch Harbor, and about 11 in the Port of Goodhope Bay, outside Kotzebue.

The Coast Guard wants to keep people and ships 100 yards away from Shell’s vessels while they’re underway, and 25 yards away while they’re at anchor.

That’s the same buffer the Coast Guard used in 2012, the last time Shell was in Alaska. But it’s smaller than the safety zones they’ve set up in Seattle.

Cmdr. Hector Cintron, the Coast Guard’s prevention chief in Anchorage, says the zones are based on the design of the ports and the amount of traffic nearby.

“The safety zones, in general, are simply needed to ensure the maximum use of the waterways,” he says, “and that’s consistent with safe navigation practices.”

The zones will also keep any protesters away from the fleet. In Seattle, the Coast Guard has set up a ‘First Amendment Zone’ near Shell’s potential terminal, where activists can assemble if they choose. But Cintron says they didn’t think they’d need one for protesters in Alaska.

“Much like any other mariner in the waterway, they would have to obey the regulation — if put in place,” he says.

The zones are out for public comment until June 1.

If approved, they’ll take effect two weeks later in Unalaska, lasting June 15 to July 1. They last all season in Kotzebue, from July 1 to Oct. 15.

That’s the same time frame for another proposed buffer zone — one to cover Shell’s drill ships when they’re at work in the Chukchi Sea. It would keep other traffic 500 meters away from the Polar Pioneerand Noble Discoverer.