By: | Associated Press
Published: February 15, 2012 Updated: February 15, 2012 – 10:26 AM
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GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) The Sierra Club and other members of the 12 Miles South Coalition say Mississippi is rushing toward drilling in state waters without addressing concerns about tourism, the environment or economics.
The group tells The Sun Herald (http://bit.ly/yiYfS2) that the Mississippi Development Authority appears to be using questionable numbers touting the economic benefits from offshore drilling for natural gas, the price and demand of which is at an historic low.
“There’s no reason to be in such a rush that you don’t get the rules right,” said Jeffrey Bounds, an engineer working with the 12 Miles South Coalition, which has fought offshore drilling in Mississippi for years.
“Once the state issues leases, it’s too late to go back and get the rules right,” Bounds said.
Earlier this month, the National Park Service said allowing drilling within one mile of Horn and Petit Bois islands would spoil the islands’ wilderness character. Casino operators said while they’re not opposed to drilling, they don’t want to see tourist areas overrun by industrial equipment, boats and workers.
The statements came during MDA’s a 43-day public comment period and in public hearings on its draft of offshore leasing and seismic surveying rules.
The coalition said MDA and Gov. Phil Bryant haven’t addressed key risks associated with drilling, including subsidence and loss of the barrier islands, contamination of the Mississippi Sound and economic losses due to damage of the Coast tourism industry. And, they said, state officials don’t appear to be sincerely interested in public input or open dialogue about drilling.
“There’s a national park (Gulf Islands National Seashore) out there for gosh sakes,” said 12 Miles member Louie Miller, director of the state Sierra Club. “That’s like Yosemite. That’s like the Grand Canyon a national treasure. We can’t make sure they’re protected?”
Bryant’s spokesman Mick Bullock issued a statement: “Gov. Bryant is moving carefully through the process to implement this nearly eight-year-old law that the Legislature passed in 2004. Although required to take public comments for a minimum of 25 days, MDA has kept the public comment period open for 43 days to allow more time for input. He will continue to work with MDA, DMR and DEQ as they move forward in finalizing these rules and regulations.”
Bounds said that “while Alabama is not a paragon, there is wide recognition that they have been fairly environmentally sensitive … They did their homework before they allowed it. MDA has not done its homework.”
Bounds said Alabama, while allowing drilling in some areas, has protected its tourist areas from drilling with a 15-mile “viewshed buffer” and other measures and that the state has strict rules against pollution from rigs and related industry.
Louis Skrmetta, a coalition member and owner of Ship Island Excursions, said the barrier islands draw thousands of tourists a year because of their pristine beaches and scenic views.
“The Gulf Islands is one of the few things Mississippi has to compete with West Florida and Gulf Shores,” Skrmetta said.
The casino operators recommended MDA include in its leasing- and seismic-testing rules language from a 2004 offshore oil and gas law that prohibits activity in most of the near-shore waters of the Mississippi Sound.
Many environmentalists and some coastal business leaders still oppose any offshore exploration or drilling and have said even after most of the Sound was put off limits, the barrier islands and other areas could still be harmed.
Casino operators and some other business leaders reigned in their protest when the 2004 law was written to secure protection for most near-shore water. Only two areas, on the Alabama and Louisiana lines, would allow exploration and drilling nearshore.
Opponents have said the Legislature could easily come back later and open water inside the Sound to drilling, and the Alabama-line area is near fragile habitat.
“I don’t think a high priority has been place on enforcement to date, and they don’t have the infrastructure in state agencies for enforcement,” said Robert Wiygul, an environmental attorney working with the coalition.
The 12 Miles group said MDA has placed no restriction on rig size, aesthetics “or shown in any way the attention to detail shown by Alabama in protecting its waters and tourism” and that no budget has been provided for enforcement and environmental monitoring or protection.
MDA has said offshore drilling and exploration will not harm the environment or tourism. They say the state has an estimated 350 billion cubic feet of natural gas offshore and stands to receive $250 million to $500 million over however many years it takes to pump it out.
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com