Opinions

How an oil industry fiasco saved Kachemak Bay 40 years ago

HALIBUT COVE -- History sometimes branches in a moment that changes everything after. That happened 40 years ago this month, when an oil rig got hopelessly stuck in the mud in Kachemak Bay, near Homer, and had to be blasted free with explosives.

The rig, the George Ferris, had previously been blown up by James Bond in the closing scene of the film "Diamonds Are Forever," as Loren Flagg notes in his book "Fish, Oil & Follies," currently being excerpted by the Homer News.

The trouble in Homer in 1976 brought world attention to oil politics in the Alaska Legislature and vindicated fishermen who had been fighting oil drilling for three years politically and in court.

On Sunday, I visited Clem Tillion at his home here on the south side of the bay, to recall those events. When he was a state senator, the George Ferris fiasco gave him the support he needed to pass a bill that had seemed to have little hope -- buying back the leases and declaring Kachemak Bay a critical habitat area to be protected evermore.

The issue also helped elect Jay Hammond as our only conservation-oriented governor — and he became the father of the Permanent Fund. And it set Homer on the path to be the eco-tourism center it is today rather than an oil town.

Environmental organizations, just getting active in Alaska at the time, were on the sidelines of the fight, said Tom Kizzia, then editor of the Homer News. This was a battle between oil and fishing.

But the oil industry was its own worst enemy.

Tillion said the oil companies tangled with the bay's thriving crab fishery before coming to drill. Contractors arrived to do seismic studies, looking for oil and setting off explosive charges where the crab reproduced.

"They came in with their seismic, and they tore through the crab pots and started going right into the nursery area and detonating these charges, and suddenly the fishermen who hadn't cared a bit were thoroughly pissed," Tillion said.

"And so the reason that I fought for the buyback had nothing to do with the oil industry per se, it had to do with the callous treatment of the commercial fishermen by their contractors," he said "And so if they wanted to keep the leases, they lost it because of the people they hired to do their work, who came in and said, 'Peasants, get out of our way.'"

Tillion, by today's standards, is an idiosyncratic Republican. The author of important environmental laws, he dislikes environmental organizations — including the one that recruited him to talk on a panel discussion about the buyback, Cook Inletkeeper (the panel, with several of the original participants, happens May 25 in Homer).

But his positions make curmudgeonly sense. He's pro-choice because he is a libertarian. He's a conservationist because he wants to save rather than spend natural resources. He fought oil because oil was against fish.

Tillion's old friend Hammond held his first campaign meetings for the governorship in 1974 in Tillion's legislative session apartment in Juneau, he said. Hammond, coming from the Bristol Bay region, was more than a long shot against Gov. Bill Egan, a hero of statehood.

But Alaska was changing rapidly. The trans-Alaska pipeline was under construction, bringing gold rush crowding and crime. Hippies and other environmentalists had arrived. Hammond's message of conservation caught on with them and with those who missed the old Alaska.

Hammond campaigned on buying back Egan's Kachemak Bay oil leases, favoring renewable fish over non-renewable oil.

But when Hammond was elected in 1974, he couldn't deliver on his promise. The Legislature wouldn't cooperate. Getting the money was difficult enough. Getting the condemnation authority to force the oil companies to give up the leases was even harder.

In the 1976 legislative session, the buyback appeared headed for defeat. (Another bill that passed, creating the Permanent Fund, got much less attention at the time.)

Homer was a tiny town with unpaved roads. Its tourism industry barely existed yet. Fishermen organized and filled public meetings, but they were up against Standard Oil of California, Shell and Texaco.

The Anchorage Times, Alaska's largest newspaper, also campaigned hard for drilling. Flagg found a Times article quoting an expert saying it would take an oil spill of more than 200 million barrels to hurt fish in the bay (for comparison, that would be 780 times larger than official estimates of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill).

Then came the George Ferris. The rig had been damaged working in Cook Inlet and was parked in the bay for repairs in the spring of 1976. Its jack-up legs sank 80 feet deep into the bottom of Mud Bay, behind the Homer Spit. In attempts to get them free, two broke, and then the tide rose over the deck. Diesel fuel spilled into the bay and a tug boat displaced a floating boom, freeing a long slick.

The fiasco happened in the last days of the legislative session. Tillion said it changed enough legislators' minds to pass the bill, giving Hammond everything he had asked for.

The rig ultimately got free only after divers blew up its legs. The stumps stuck out of Mud Bay long after, Kizzia recalled.

Oil drilling has never happened in Kachemak Bay. The Homer Spit has tourist shops instead of pipe yards and oil tanks. But Tillion, as contrary as ever, says he wouldn't vote for the buyback or the critical habitat area now, because the crab fishery he wanted to protect is gone.

The oil industry gained political strength in the 1980s. Both political parties changed. It's hard to imagine a lease buyback happening today, or a leader like Jay Hammond getting elected.

Hammond did not see this future. Flagg quotes him in his book, after the buyback, saying, "It represents the end of an era when we sold our oil resources without any real reflection on the impact from the sale, simply for the purpose of gaining immediate revenue to run our government."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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