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Offshore drilling debate continues as MDA plans public hearing

As debate continues over drilling for oil and gas in the waters off the Coast’s shoreline, the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) answered one bone of contention by announcing plans to hold a public hearing in Biloxi this month. Residents and officials had expressed concern that attending a hearing in Jackson would be a hardship for those wishing to attend from the three southernmost counties.

According to Jack Moody, who oversees the mineral lease program at MDA, the hearing will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 24 at the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center in Biloxi. That hearing and the one in Jackson May 27 are being held on the proposed regulations for seismic testing around the barrier islands, most of which are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

“We want to go down there and hear what the Coast has to say,” Moody said. “We’re looking for concern and good ideas. We’re trying to put the rules and regulations in an order that the public can understand.”

He says MDA has been working with state watchdog agencies to develop the regulations, and his agency will have more public interplay on the Coast. “There’s a lot of misinformation going around, but I am looking forward to the hearing and I am optimistic.”

Biloxi environmental attorney Robert Wiygul of Waltzer & Associates says it’s troubling for an issue of this importance to be handled this way. “Ordinarily for hearings like this, the public has at least 30 days to make comments and a court recorder is present,” he said. “The effort here to get out the word doesn’t seem to be too great.”

Wiygul says he’s hearing a great deal of concern and discomfort about the proposed seismic testing. There are those who think it’s an effort to drill within the federal islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore. A bill that passed the U.S. House and is expected to pass the Senate spells out that Mississippi retained mineral rights when the islands became part of the federal seashore.

“It’s not unusual to have states and others have rights under islands, but I don’t see why our national park doesn’t have the same protection as other national parks,” Wiygul said.

The bill to clarify Mississippi’s rights to any oil and gas underneath the barrier islands was introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran as an amendment to a defense and tsunami-relief spending bill. Jenny Manly, a spokeswoman for his office, said, “He’s not authorizing anybody to drill. That is still clearly up to the state, not the federal government.”

State Rep. Roger Ishee of Gulfport says testing around the barrier islands would use a different technique and limit the size of explosives. “The environmentalists are blowing it all out of proportion and trying to scare people,” he said.

Ishee has a degree in petroleum engineering and worked in the industry for many years before retiring. He says a group of geologists at the University of Mississippi took all available data and found that there are large deposits of gas in state waters. It is estimated that over a period of 20 years, these reserves could produce revenue of $1 billion for state coffers.

He was involved with legislation that took authority for drilling from the Department of Environmental Quality and placed it under MDA. He says that oversight for drilling applies to all state property.

“The DEQ will still be involved, but after the beef plant fiasco, we need the primary oversight for development to be with the MDA,” he said.

He also says the state bill included a provision to limit drilling to 12 miles from shore. “Before that, drilling could be done right up to the beach, but that is no longer possible,” he said.

Wiygul says he’s not hearing any local support for drilling.

Gulfport attorney Reilly Morse, who’s a member of the Gulf Islands Conservancy and has been active in environmental issues for 20 years, says that organization supports no drilling. “We want a horizon free of obstructions, and that’s a huge drawing card for this area,” he said.

Moody believes it will be a year to 18 months before any drilling can take place. He thinks MDA will be ready to take applications for permits by July.

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


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