Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:25 PM on Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jack-up rig heads up Cook Inlet

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

The Escopeta Oil and Gas Spartan 151 jack-up rig lies at anchor off of Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay on Monday morning, Aug. 8. One of three Foss Maritime tugboats that towed it from Vancouver, B.C., to Homer is to the left. The rig left Vancouver July 19 and arrived about 5 p.m. Aug. 7 in Kachemak Bay.

A visit this week by the Escopeta Oil and Gas Spartan Blake 151 jack-up drilling rig gave some Homer residents a sight they hadn't seen since 1976 when explosives freed the infamous George Ferris from being stuck in Mud Bay. Sunday evening three Foss Maritime tugboats pulled the Spartan Blake 151 up Cook Inlet — and took a side trip into Kachemak Bay.

The Standard Oil rig George Ferris became a symbol of opposition to oil and gas exploration in the bay, leading to a successful campaign for the state to buy back leases and establish a critical habitat area. Unlike the George Ferris, which had been in the bay more than a year, the Spartan Blake 151 stayed only three days, leaving for upper Cook Inlet late Tuesday night.

"We were surprised to see it here this morning," Homer City Manager Walt Wrede told the Homer City Council on Monday.

Wrede and Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins had known the rig was coming to Cook Inlet, but not that it would anchor for several days in Kachemak Bay.

The Spartan Blake 151 was ordered to make port in Homer by the U.S. Customs Service, said Escopeta strategic officer Steve Sutherlin. The jack-up rig and tugboats were cleared by customs and got permission to move to the Kitchen Lights unit in upper Cook Inlet on Tuesday.

The tugs and rig were north of Kalgin Island about 25 miles west of Kenai on Wednesday morning.

Hawkins said it's not uncommon for ships to clear customs in Homer.

The jack-up rig and tug boats left Vancouver, B.C., July 19, after a layover from a torturous — and controversial — voyage from the Gulf of Mexico around South America on the Kang Sheng Kou, a Chinese heavy-lift vessel. Some U.S. shipping companies alleged Escopeta violated the Jones Act by using the Kang Sheng Kou. Escopeta had gotten an exemption in 2006 to move a jack-up rig to Alaska, but the deal fell through. It had been trying to get an exemption for the Kang Sheng Kou, but Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, denied the request.

Sutherlin said that the Jones Act issues had been settled.

"As far as I know, we're good to go," he said.

The Jones Act prohibits ships moving between U.S. ports and hauling cargo to be foreign owned and crewed. The Foss Maritime tugs are U.S. owned and crewed vessels.

With its 250-foot tall three legs, the Spartan Blake 151 jack-up rig dominated the skyline over the bay about 3 miles north of the Homer Spit. Anchored by three Foss tugs, the rig drew curious boaters earlier this week, including an inspection by Cook Inletkeeper staff on its inflatable Zodiac, Wiinaq. The Homer News accompanied Cook Inletkeeper on its inspection.

In a letter to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which regulates use in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, Cook Inletkeeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson questioned if the Spartan Blake 151 could anchor in Kachemak Bay.

The jack-up rig can anchor in the bay for 14 days, said Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Elizabeth Bluemink. If Escopeta wanted to put the rig's legs down, it would need a tidelands permit from DNR and a special area permit from Fish and Game. It would also need a special area permit to stay after two weeks. The Spartan Blake 151 did not lower its legs while anchored here.

Shavelson also questioned Escopeta's ability to respond to a blowout.

"If they have a blowout, their plan is to bring a jack-up rig from Asia," Shavelson said. "It took them five years to bring a rig from the Gulf of Mexico. What makes them think they can bring a rig within 30 days?"

The Spartan Blake 151 can drill in 150 feet of water and has a 15,000-pounds per square inch blowout preventer, Sutherlin said. That's higher than the 10,000 psi blowout preventers used elsewhere in the area.

"It's a pretty robust deal for Cook Inlet," he said.

Well control will be done with drilling mud, he also noted, and not with sea water as was used by BP contractors in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Sutherlin said that once the Spartan Blake 151 receives clearance to leave Kachemak Bay, it will head north to Cook Inlet and start preparations for drilling.

The Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council has reviewed Escopeta's contingency plan for oil spill preparedness and sent its comments to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, CIRCAC Outreach Director Jerry Rombach said in a press release on Tuesday.

"I am concerned, given the short time frame to drill this season, that Escopeta conducts all operations in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," said CIRCAC Executive Director Mike Munger. "We have been monitoring all activities and been in constant contact with state and federal regulators to ensure that no corners are being cut."

RCAC staff also observed and participated in a two-day spill training exercise in July with the U.S. Coast Guard, Escopeta and DEC.