Members of the panel on the 40th anniversary of the Kachemak Bay oil and gas lease buyback reflected on the effort it took to keep the oil companies out of Homer waters. The other message of the night was for Homer and Kenai Peninsula residents to stay vigilant in preserving the future.
“It was between those interested in tomorrow and those who didn’t plan to be here tomorrow and wanted the money now,” said former Alaska Senate President Clem Tillion. “I was interested in what the grandchildren would get out of it because I intended to have some. When I went into battle, I went in to win.”
Cook Inletkeeper hosted a panel discussion involving several key players in Homer’s victory over the oil leases, including legislators, activists, writers and a scientist. The event marked the 40th anniversary of the George Ferris oil rig becoming stuck in Kachemak Bay, which helped tip the scales in the favor of condemning the oil leases in the bay and ultimately won back the bay from oil development.
An audience filled a room at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center on the evening of May 25 to hear the perspectives of those involved in the citizen movement from 1973-1976 that kicked the oil companies out of Kachemak Bay.
Without the lease buybacks, Homer would not be the town it is today and the Spit would look very different, agreed the panelists. Each panelist had his or her own unique connection to the fight against the oil companies over Kachemak Bay.
At the time the plans to drill for oil were put forth, Loren Flagg, then an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, recommended Kachemak Bay be exempt due to the value of the fishery and the yearly bird migration. Homer’s fishery was producing two million pounds of king crab, half a million pounds of tanner crab, five million pounds of shrimp, as well as salmon and halibut in the 1970s, Flagg said.
However, the sale went forward in December 1973 in an administrative action by Gov. William Egan.
It took a three-year battle to reverse this action, Flagg said. Activists united into the Citizens for a Better Community and the Kachemak Bay Defense Fund, and fishermen filed a suit with the Alaska Superior Court in 1974, fighting to get the oil rigs out of Homer waters. In 1976, hearings were held to determine the fate of Kachemak Bay.
The audience laughed as Flagg talked about a legislative hearing at which one of the biologists for Chevron testified it was not possible to spill enough oil to harm Kachemak Bay. After the hearings, the Legislature would vote whether to retain the leases or buy them back — saving the Kachemak Bay in the eyes of many.
“And then, just as the Legislature was getting ready to vote, the George Ferris, one of the oil rigs in the bay … it was stuck. They tried to lift one of the legs in, they tried to let the tide bring it up, but they couldn’t get it. The rig was swamped and there was an oil spill,” Flagg said. “All efforts to contain it, it wasn’t a real big spill, but they couldn’t contain it, and that was enough for legislators to change their votes. Within two or three days both the House and Senate had passed Gov. Jay Hammond’s bill and gave him everything he wanted, including creation of the critical habitat area and condemnation and buyback of the leases.”
The lease buyback would not have happened without the George Ferris incident, Tillion said. The legislators’ votes that needed to change could not have happened without the confirmation of the dangers to the bay in the form of the George Ferris and the oil spill.
The visual itself was staggering, especially for those in the fishing industry. Kenny Moore, owner of Northern Enterprises Boatyard and a former crab fisherman, recalled coming out to work that May morning and seeing the George Ferris wreaking destruction.
“I started out one morning, just after four, and there was a glow on the horizon. I got closer and I began to understand what it was,” Moore said. “It was a drilling rig, flying sideways, going through our crab fishery with you can guess how much cable out. It was still black, but I swung around behind the thing and, low and behold, just as I expected, you could see you couldn’t even guess how many crab pots dragging behind the thing.”
For Moore and his crew, seeing their livelihood dragging behind the rig was more than enough to get them on the path to activism. For others, such as former head of the Kachemak Bay Defense Fund Frank Tupper, a self-described hippie at the time, the news of the oil leases incited Tupper to action.
“All the people of Homer had to do was turn around the oil industry and turn around the Alaskan government,” said Cook Inletkeeper executive director and inletkeeper Bob Shavelson.
“I didn’t think we could do it either, but we had no choice,” Tupper said.
Though Homer won this particular fight against the oil companies four decades ago, complacency was hardly on most of the minds attending the panel. Audience members and panel members both touched on the current demands on Alaska’s environment by oil, gas and mineral companies across the state.
“Our history shows that we repeat it in cycles and so we’ve seen development before, we’ll see it again,” Shavelson said. “We’re seeing it in different iterations now and we’re seeing parallels too, and so the lessons that were heard at the end — have faith in people organizing, trust but verify — those are things that hold weight today.”
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clem Tillion, former President, Alaska Senate
Tom Kizzia, journalist/writer
Loren Flagg, retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist
Frank Tupper, former head of Kachemak Bay Defense Fund
Nancy Lord, author
Chancy Croft, former President, Alaska Senate
Kenny Moore, owner of Northern Enterprises Boatyard and former crab fisherman
Warren Matthews, former Chief Justice, Alaska Supreme Court and attorney for Kachemak Bay fisherman