Changing Planet

Oil Rig in Alaskan Critical Habitat Area

Kachemak Bay in Lower Cook Inlet lies 125 miles south of Anchorage. It’s been statistically documented as one of the world’s richest and most biologically diverse marine ecosystems, and has been properly called the “Jewel in Alaska’s Coastal Crown” because of its remarkably rich terrestrial and marine resources.


Kachemak Bay is among the world's most productive. (Brad Gambell)


Yet since the expansion of commercial oil and gas development in Cook Inlet in the 1960s, Kachemak Bay has been threatened by heavy industrial development. Today that threat looms larger than ever.

In the 1970s local people fought the State of Alaska’s shortsighted $25 million oil and gas lease sale in Kachemak Bay. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the sale was illegal, and ordered the State to buy back the leases.

Encouraged by an oil-free bay, Homer then became the headquarters of the National Maritime Wildlife Refuge, a State Critical Habitat Area, and the home of America’s largest National Estuarine Research Reserve. Kachemak Bay watershed also includes the first State Park created by the Alaska legislature, and the only state-designated wilderness area in Alaska. It is a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. The World Bank’s environmental program listed it among the planet’s most significant marine ecosystems, and there’s a proposal to designate the area as a United Nations World Heritage Site.

A 440-foot-tall exploratory “jack-up” drilling rig darkens the landscape in Kachemak Bay. State resource managers have ignored a well-established rule prohibiting storage of  such rigs in the state Critical Habitat Area, and allowed a foreign company to store its massive rig in the Bay.


A giant jack-up oil rig in Alaskan Critical Habitat Area (Cook Inlet Keeper photo)


Buccaneer Energy – the Australian company responsible for the drill rig – has encountered problems since the rig arrived. They said the rig would be in Kachemak Bay for eightdays; that was three months ago. They said they had permits to drill, when they didn’t. They didn’t pay some local workers who put them on a “cash only” basis. They promised local elected officials they would provide them with their plan in the event of a drilling blow-out, but no such report has been filed. They held public meetings then could not answer direct questions.

Over 90% of Alaska’s general fund revenues derive from oil and gas production. With no statewide sales or income tax, Alaska is wholly dependent on large multinational oil companies to pay for basic services. As a result, the State of Alaska has fully embraced the rhetoric of “drill, baby, drill,” with few efforts to mitigate the climate change, oil spill, and other disruptions that come from oil production and use.

In its efforts to incentivize more drilling, Alaska provides huge tax credits and other subsidies. For example, oil and gas companies can get $0.65  back on every dollar they spend for exploration activities, and in Cook Inlet, the first three companies to drill new deep wells can get tax credits up to $25 million.

Despite the fact the U.S. is now exporting its oil excess, the federal and state governments continue to encourage oil drilling adjacent to Kachemak Bay, where tides rise and fall as much as 30 vertical feet in six hours, offering little chance of oil spill containment in an area beset with heavy wind, ice and wave conditions.

Alaska stands on the front lines of rapid climate change. From melting glaciers and disappearing sea ice to warming salmon streams and thawing permafrost, no place in the U.S. is experiencing the effects of rapid global warming like Alaska.

Kachemak Bay is under siege from oil and gas companies looking to profit from huge state subsidies and regulatory agencies willing to look the other way when violations occur. Groups like Cook Inlet Keeper are working hard to level the playing field, and local citizens are mobilizing to assert their rights to clean water and healthy fisheries. Until we come to grips with our nation’s fossil fuel addiction, more areas like Kachemak Bay will fall into the cross hairs of oil and gas development. Support the work of the Cook Inletkeeper  here:

Alaskans and people everywhere demand leaders who listen to the scientific intelligence and act sustainably based on it.  As responsible citizens we have the opportunity to work together to build secure, resilient communities.

We  are right to  demand  clear-eyed leadership of our public officials, expecting that they first  protect the natural environment that sustains us while wisely  making our resources available only  to those who play by our  rules.


He has more than 40 years experience as a wilderness guide, interpretive naturalist and bush pilot flying the wilds of Alaska. He's a Master Guide, licensed Coast Guard Captain with strong expertise in marine biology. He is an elected member of the Explorer's Club and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is a Nationally Certified Yoga Teacher. He was the first Alaskan to serve on the Smithsonian National Board, a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Foundation board member. He was awarded a Legislative Citation for Practical Activism. He was an Advisory Board member and pilot for Lighthawk, "Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in America” and a founding patron of Bateleurs, “Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in Africa” and is an elected member of the Africa Game Rangers Association. His Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge won a score of international awards and is listed in the NY Times Best Seller "1000 Places To See Before You Die" . Web site: His new book The Last Wilderness-Alaska's Wild Coast is available at Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado
  • Homer Visitor

    Wait. Are they actually drilling Kachemak Bay? I thought this was storage. Not as temporary as they wanted, but not drilling… right? If your concern is that it’s marring the view or or that it just shouldn’t be stored here, then just say so.

  • Annie

    “State resource managers have ignored a well-established rule prohibiting storage of such rigs in the state Critical Habitat Area, and allowed a foreign company to store its massive rig in the Bay.”

    Really, National Geographic? You used to be a reliable source of well-researched information. Next time you accept a submission from an activist citizen, maybe you should double-check with the people he’s dragging through the mud here, in error?

    Actually, the reason the rig is still in Homer is that the company needs to fix safety problems before they can move the rig to its winter storage location, which is NOT in Kachemak Bay. So the rig is where it is exactly to PREVENT that it develop problems while traveling through a sensitive area. Storing the rig in Kachemak Bay has never been part of the plan. You could also contact the company, Buccaneer Alaska, and get their side of the story. If you’re interested in the truth, that is.

  • Response Nov l7, the article clearly states, twice, that the rig is in storage in the Bay

    Response Nov 19, the information was well researched and there are no errors. The rig was in such a bad state of dis-repair (its history has been carefully researched) that it could not continue without extensive repair, now underway for months. Their plan for winter storage is in the bay (see a chart that describes the bay) There has been a very active dialogue with Buccaneer whose mismanagement has caused public meetings with city officials and public demonstrations. The article is carefully written to present the facts and avoid misinformation.

  • Bob Shavelson

    @Annie – Funny you think we could get the truth from Buccaneer. They’ve misled our community since day one. Guess you missed their disastrous public meetings.

    And yes, there is a long-established rule that prohibits storing drill rigs in the critical habitat area. see page 11 here:

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