Drilling issue intensifies

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Published: August 1,2005

The debate over offshore drilling continues to grow in South Mississippi.

The 12 Mile Coalition, a group opposed to drilling, is holding a rally on August 21 at the Coast Coliseum that’s expected to draw thousands. The Harrison County Tourism Commission, which oversees the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently adopted a resolution opposing offshore exploration, drilling and development of oil, gas, minerals and other hydrocarbons adjacent to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including any areas between the islands and the coastline.

Coalition spokesman Robert Barq said the group has raised about $100,000 through donations for the rally, billboards, bumper stickers and advertising. Offices have been opened in Pascagoula and Gulfport.

“We’re doing it for love of the Coast,” he said. “At the rally we will send a message to politicians to get on board and find out what the will of the people is. Our goal is to have the federal government buy up oil and gas mineral rights like they did in Florida.”

Mistake made?

Barq, a Biloxi real estate investor whose great grandfather invented Barq’s Root Beer in 1898, says the coalition is getting a lot of feedback. Some is from elected officials who realized they made a mistake when they voted to place offshore drilling responsibility under the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA).

“We salute them and others will get the message when we vote again,” he added. “We’re inviting everyone from the governor on down to the rally. They all know they have a chance to speak and redeem themselves.”

Another side of the story

But Joe Sims, executive director of the Alabama-Mississippi division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, is also planning to make presentations, complete with maps and charts, to groups on the Coast in August. He says he’s frustrated that residents aren’t hearing both sides of the story.

“There are too many comments not based on fact,” he said. “There’s so much emotion involved. It will take a concerted effort to get the message out there. I’m convinced that once people hear the facts they’re hard to dispute.”

Sims says no one at MDA would do anything to hurt the quality of life on the Coast. He thinks many people in Alabama will say good things about offshore drilling. “We’ve used Mobile Bay as a good model because they’ve been producing for 25 years with no negatives and no problems.”

Steve Richer, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau, said the resolution was unanimous among commissioners present at the meeting. “There seems to be a strong opinion against drilling,” he said. “Things are going so well in tourism, why tamper with it? We’re sending the resolution to state public officials.”

He said the commission is joining others, including the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and the Mississippi Gaming Association, who went on record a year ago as opposing offshore drilling. The tourism commission didn’t think it was that much of an issue until the federal government leased six blocks of water near the barrier islands to an oil and gas company.

“All questions have not been answered, but we believe 12 miles gives enough room to keep drilling out of view,” Richer said. “We support the 12-mile ban. Tourism is growing. We’re seeing a lot of interest in Mississippi and want to make sure anything that’s done doesn’t hurt tourism and the quality of life here.”

Sims says the federal government has lease sales throughout the year in the western Gulf of Mexico and the March sales have nothing to do with Mississippi’s current controversy.

“The sales are routinely held and are 100% up to the federal government and are done by sealed bids. It’s going on off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. No one in the state is involved in that.”

There are platforms and activity already out there south of Petit Bois Island, he says, and has been for 10 or 15 years. “Probably 99% of the opposition didn’t know they were out there and the platforms have not hurt tourism,” he said. “You can’t see them. They are not distinguishable. If you’re on the island you can see them but not from shore.”

And the next issue…?

Barq is spending a lot of time speaking to groups and the media and answering phone calls. “I don’t have time to come up for air,” he says. “Three out of 500 calls I’ve had have said they don’t care and all the others are opposed.”

He said the 12 Mile Coalition hopes to attract national media attention to the issue. It did receive recent coverage from The Guardian, a daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, and from The Los Angeles Times.

“If we let this go, what about the next issue? If politicians can’t listen to us on this then I don’t want them representing me,” he said.

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

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