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offshore drillingthe big issue on the Coast with large crowds for hearing, meeting

More voices joining chorus calling for drilling caution

More voices have entered the debate about drilling for oil and gas in the waters off the Mississippi shoreline, but no rules and regulations have been determined. A public hearing in Jackson and an informational meeting on the Coast brought overflow crowds with an abundance of questions and concerns, according to Jack Moody, who oversees the mineral lease program at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA).

“We had a lot of good feedback and there was a lot of concern that this matter is a freight train running away at breakneck speed without people on the Coast having input,” he said. “It was never meant to be that way and now we’re stepping back to look at it.”

Moody, who worked at the Department of Environmental Quality in this same capacity for many years before transferring to MDA, said MDA executive director Leland Speed instructed him to get together with representatives of Gulf Coast groups to work through the necessary rules and regulations to govern both seismic testing and leasing. The state Legislature transferred this authority from DEQ to MDA last year.

“That’s what MDA is supposed to do. We have our marching orders to get this thing going and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

He said the names of those representatives who will meet with MDA have not been fully determined but he hopes to finalize it by mid-June. “The obvious groups to be represented are the Gulf Islands Conservancy, Sierra Club, Charter Boat Captains and Attractions Association,” he said, “and Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rocko said she would serve on the committee.”

Moody said the objective is to keep the group small enough to get some work done and develop a workable plan that includes the best results for both sides. “We will take it to heart and work in a way that we can make progress to have an improved document,” he said.

Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said the Pascagoula lawmaker wants to hear more about the matter and feels it must be done responsibly, especially with the National Seashore and coastal impacts to tourism.

“Sen. Lott has not dismissed it, but wants his questions answered about specifics,” he said. “He has always pursued development but not without attention to the environment and tourism concerns. He will continue to talk to people to get specifics.”

The senator issued a statement that said, “I have some concerns. I’d want to know exactly what all that means. Where are these rigs? Is it, I assume natural gas only, which has less environmental problems than oil,” he said. “But, this is not something I have pursued, and I’m asking some questions about exactly what it means and how it would work.

“If it’s not done properly, or if it’s done in an obtrusive way, obviously that would be a concern. I’ve always tried to see if we could have progress and energy production, entertainment and tourism all at the same time. That takes a lot of vision and a lot of effort to make sure that something like that is done in the right way.”

Several state legislative representatives spoke at the hearings and some have written letters to Gov. Haley Barbour and the MDA calling for a halt to any movement toward exploration or drilling.

“This is not something you can pigeonhole as a Republican issue or Democrat issue or environmental issue or shrimp picker or casino worker issue,” said state Sen. Billy Hewes III, a Gulfport Republican who voted in favor of the state law change that placed drilling responsibility under MDA.

He continued by saying he doesn’t want the seashore islands touched. “I don’t want any drilling on, near or beneath the islands. Leave them alone and let our community keep its character,” he said.

Five barrier islands off the Mississippi Coast comprise the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a part of the National Park Service. The islands attract thousands of visitors each year and park officials are concerned about seismic testing and drilling near the pristine islands.

Harrison County’s Board of Supervisors passed a unanimous resolution against oil or gas exploration and drilling any closer than 12 nautical miles south of these islands. The resolution was forwarded to the MDA asking that the Coast’s interests be taken into consideration. The board also paid for a court reporter to record comments from speakers at the informational meeting held in Biloxi.

Other members of the legislative delegation voicing opinions against any drilling in state waters include Sen. Tommy Gollot and Rep. Randall Patterson, both Democrats of Biloxi, who opposed the bill last year.

State Representatives Diane Peranich, chairman of the House Tourism Committee, Bobby Moak, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, and Jamie Franks, chairman of the House Conservation Committee, submitted letters to the governor and the MDA.

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


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