GULF OF MEXICO — Opponents of offshore drilling in Mississippi Sound say state officials didn’t do enough to consult with others or properly consider all possible economic impacts, such as whether drilling would hurt tourism.
The superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and an opponent who wrote an economic study questioning the benefits of drilling were among the witnesses yesterday as a hearing concluded on the state’s plan to lease parts of Mississippi Sound for natural gas drilling.
The appeal of seismic testing and leasing rules will be decided by Brent Christensen, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. If opponents dislike the decision of Christensen, who runs the agency that wrote the rules, they can appeal to Hinds County Chancery Court.
Royce Cole, a lawyer for the state, says the state acted properly and opponents haven’t proven that MDA did anything wrong.
“The statute is clear that MDA had a mandate and was required to promulgate the regulations,” she told hearing officer Patricia Hancock.
Robert Wiygul, the lawyer for the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network, disagreed.
“We obviously have big and basic disagreements with the statutes and their interpretation, with what MDA did and how the issues were raised,” Wiygul said.
Hancock said she wants to gather some more documents. After that, she has 20 days to submit findings to Christensen. He, in turn, has 15 days to make a decision. MDA spokesman Dan Turner said Christensen has wide latitude to accept, reject or reconsider the rules and is “not limited to specific options.”
Opponents argue the state had the duty to consider all the potential impacts of drilling. They say that MDA, at Gov. Haley Barbour’s behest, improperly acted as a cheerleader for exploration rather than an impartial regulator.
Dan Brown is superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the National Parks Service unit that owns all of Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship and West Ship islands, as well as part of Cat Island. He emphasized that Petit Bois and Horn, the easternmost islands, are designated as wilderness areas, which means machinery and permanent structures are banned.
“Man is to be a visitor and it is to be left untrammeled,” Brown said.
Brown said that the Barbour administration tasked Trudy Fisher, the head of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, with contacting the park. But Fisher contacted the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an entirely separate agency, said Brown and Cole.
Brown said he only learned of the state’s decision to write drilling regulations when he read about it in a newspaper. He said the National Park Service wants a wider environmental review before the state moves ahead.
“We are requesting a comprehensive evaluation of a wide range of potential impacts,” Brown said.
Cole asked whether ships and boats didn’t produce the same kind of emissions and noise impacts that drilling might create. Brown disagreed with that contention.
He also said that deeds show that the state gave ownership of the sea bottom between some of the islands to the National Park Service. MDA wants to designate some of those areas for possible drilling, and Cole said the state disagrees with the park’s ownership claim.
Jeff Bounds prepared an economic study for opponents. He argues that costs to the coast tourism industry outweigh economic benefits the state would get from natural gas lease fees and royalties. He also said the state’s cost-benefit analysis, which doesn’t account for potential drawbacks to drilling, is one-sided. The state has argued that MDA only had to assess the impact of seismic testing and leasing, not the drilling that might follow.
“I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to say leasing will have no impact,” Bounds said. “If the leases are made, then drilling will follow. The state owes it to its citizens to not engage in an activity that basically costs the citizens money.”
Bounds said Mississippi might be better served to wait for higher gas prices and improvements in technology.
Bounds holds multiple degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but Cole challenged his qualifications, saying he wasn’t an economist or geologist. Bounds said his specialty was stochastic engineering, aimed at dealing with random processes.
“This should not be reviewed or considered as an expert report,” Cole said.