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Drilling raises concerns over environmental and tourism issues

A bill now awaiting the governor`s signature that will take the oversight for oil and gas drilling from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and place it under the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) was not favorably embraced in some sectors. Disagreement over drilling in the Mississippi Sound is at the heart of the discontent for the measure that becomes law on July 1 if Gov. Haley Barbour signs it.

Louie Miller, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club for 15 years, doesn`t doubt that the governor will sign it. “The governor was openly pushing it. I know he`s been pushing it hard,” he said. “It`s a bad deal for the state. There are loads of environmental concerns. It`s like buying a pig in a poke.”

Miller challenged legislators to visit Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama before voting on the drilling bill. There, he said, they would see that economic development is not happening because the water is too dirty with trash and a sheen on the surface caused by drilling rigs.

“They can talk about zero discharge until the cows come home but it`s not happening,” he said. “With DEQ taking an $850,000 budget cut, there won`t be much enforcement. They didn`t take this away from DEQ for no particular reason.”

He cites an Alabama case against ExxonMobil that resulted in the largest punitive damage award in the U.S. in 2003 as an example of a state not living peacefully with what drilling does to the environment.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, who represents western Harrison County, says she bets the citizens of Alabama wouldn`t want to look at rigs if they had a choice. She points out that Louisiana has had terrible erosion along its shores and that Gulf of Mexico fisheries in general are strained.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I believe rigs will be visible from the upper floors of the higher hotels on the Coast,” she said. “I’m supposed to be the wild-eyed liberal and I feel we shouldn`t rush. We should proceed cautiously before we put a strain on tourism, fisheries and the citizens who love having the last unrestricted view in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Riley Morse, a Gulfport attorney who`s a member of the Gulf Islands Conservancy and has been active in environmental issues for over 20 years, says it`s worthwhile to see what the overall experience of oil spills has been in the total western Gulf of Mexico. Water-borne debris, poisonous and flammable gases such as hydrogen sulfide, direct spills, visual light impact and mercury deposits are all concerns from oil and gas drilling, he says.

“Mercury poisons fish and these deposits are large. They’re higher and worse now because sometime in the 1990s the numeric content was changed,” he said.

Another concern is the slumping of sediments and soils around the rigs that causes sink holes, which can affect the barrier islands. These islands can be affected a lot faster than the shoreline, he said, because they are subject to constant wind and wave action.

The Gulf Coast Gaming Association passed a unanimous resolution against this bill and made legislators aware of it, according to executive director Beverly Martin.

“We formed a committee to look into it and we can only support drilling if it`s 12 miles south of the barrier islands,” she said. “We asked them to wait until federal legislation affecting drilling is addressed. There`s a move in Congress to share revenues from resources farther out in the water with the coastal states.”

Martin says the U.S. Congress has taken the position that it not only owns waters to the 12-mile line but also controls the renewable resources, including fisheries and mineral rights, out to 200 miles from the nearest land mass. It is her understanding that coastal states are negotiating with the federal government to reach an agreement to share these renewable resource royalties from three nautical miles to the 200 nautical mile zone. She said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is backing legislation to do that.

“After this federal legislation passes, then the state could benefit from these additional miles,” she said. “Some of the coastal delegation called us saying they wished they had known about this sooner.”

Martin said her association obtained this information from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and other agencies. “We felt like the state Legislature was rushing this bill and we don`t understand that,” she said. “These resources have been out there a long time and won`t go away.”

In spite of the amendment to prohibit drilling within one mile of the barrier islands, the Gulf Coast Gaming Association is still against this bill, Martin said, because their research indicates that rigs will still be visible from the higher hotel rooms on shore.

A nautical mile is 6,011 feet, which is longer than a mile on land. The horizon drops six feet per nautical mile, so a rig that`s 72 feet high located 13 miles south of the shore, much less two miles south of Ship Island, would still be quite visible, they maintain.

“So we believe our original stand of only supporting oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Mississippi Gulf with a no drill buffer zone extending 12 nautical miles south of the barrier islands would have been a good compromise,” Martin said.

Miller and others fought to keep the Sound totally closed to drilling, offering 11 amendments to that effect. “We thought there would not be any but there are some open blocks in Jackson and Hancock counties,” he said. “They flat lied about it.”

As for economic benefits for the state, Miller said, “The oil and gas industry holds this out to be some windfall and used education as their mantra. It`s outrageous for them to prostitute the schoolchildren of Mississippi this way.”

He says drilling in the Sound puts the $500 million tourism and gaming industries at risk. However, the Harrison County Tourism Commission has no official opinion on this matter, according to executive director

Steve Richer. Sen. Dawkins says that lack of opinion could be because the commission receives some funding from state tourism, a division of MDA.

“There was a lot of misinformation put out on this bill, but it was greased from the get go and breezed through,” Miller said. “It`s the old story that money talks and the little man walks. Something of this magnitude would not have passed otherwise.”

Another point of contention is the bill`s provision that hearings involving oil and gas drilling will be heard only in Hinds County courts. “That`s a slap in the face of every constituent in the three coastal counties,” Miller said.

Sen. Dawkins said, “Usually with appeals to state agencies involving coastal matters, the appellate can choose where to have a hearing, Why are we restricting this one to Hinds County? It`s insulting to say they’re more impartial there.”

While she is not happy with that part of the bill, Dawkins said reducing the bond to $500 from the original $50,000 made it somewhat more palatable.

“The way the whole matter was handled from the beginning sets a bad precedent,” she said. “We should have at least had a hearing in the Senate committee.”

Dawkins, who is on the Senate`s oil and gas committee, said she was blindsided, and she believes it was intentional. She said language in the bill`s lead sentence was vague and gave no indication of what was about to happen. Also, it was not double referred to the oil and gas and environmental committees, as is the norm.

“No one from the Coast knew about it,” she said. “I felt it concerned so much of what goes on that we at least should have the right to have a hearing. I believe the lobbyists have been pushing this for years and managed to keep it quiet. They had their ducks in a row and popped it out.”

She thinks the Senate leadership was pushing the bill and that`s why it faced no challenges in the Senate. Sen. Bob Dearing, who chairs the oil and gas committee, said Sen. Dawkins and Sen. Tommy Gollott of Biloxi were the only senators who voted against the measure from beginning to end.

“This bill caught everyone offguard, including the Coast GOP delegation,” Morse said. “I think the upstate GOP chose de
ce
ptive measures to slip it in.”

Dawkins was disappointed that Dearing didn`t let anyone from the Coast know about the bill. “I wouldn`t push something in his area without approaching him first,” she said.

She added that faced with revenue shortfalls, a lot of people who have no foresight see oil and gas drilling as a quick source of revenue.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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