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Drilling Remains A Hot Button Issue with Energy Summit and Seismic Testing Permits

By Rhonda Miller | Published 09 Mar 2012 01:17am | comments
One of the drilling rigs off the public beach on Dauphin Island.

An energy summit in Biloxi Monday featuring some of the Republican presidential candidates is expected to keep the spotlight on drilling in Mississippi waters. MPB’s Rhonda Miller reports Mississippi can get some idea of its future by looking at Alabama, where drilling has been going on for more than 30 years.

"I’m on the beach at Dauphin Island and I’m looking offshore and just from here I can count one…two...three…four…five…six rigs…"

"This is the Mississippi Sound behind us and the Gulf of Mexico, of course, to the south."

That’s Mike Tafra, who’s owned the Gulf Breeze Motel on Alabama’s Dauphin Island since 1982, three years after the first rig arrived.  

"Some people don’t like seeing the gas rigs. But, you know, the problem is, everybody does like to have warm homes in the wintertime and they like to be able to drive their vehicles."

At her home on Dauphin Island, Firefighter Sussie Dalton says she thinks drilling in Mississippi is a good idea.

"If it brings jobs to this area, to our local people, in south Mobile County, and Mississippi and Florida, I say bring it on, 'cause we’re hurtin’."

Her husband, Chris Dalton, is also a firefighter who knows drilling has disadvantages, like occasional poisonous gas leaks.

"Whenever there’s an alarm that goes off for hydrogen sulfide, we roam the island with our monitors and check for deadly levels of it. So we may have to call for an evacuation of the island, should this happen. (Has that ever happened?) We have had to monitor several times. There have been several leaks."

The rigs in Dauphin Island waters earned the state five-million-dollars last year, according to the Alabama Department of Revenue.  Drilling along the entire Alabama coast pumped 16-million dollars in tax revenue into the state’s bank account last year.

Just over the Alabama border in Jackson County, Mississippi, some proposed drilling sites go right up to the main coastline. President of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors, John McKay, believes America should be energy independent, so drilling is a priority.

"Look at Dauphin Island. I don’t think it’s hurt them at all. People go out and fish around the rigs. It’s a great attraction for the fish. There may be a few people that say, I don’t want to look at a rig out there, and it would be harmful. There’s a lot of others, you know, that it doesn’t bother."

The state Legislature approved drilling in Mississippi waters in 2004. The regulations were finalized last month by the Mississippi Development Authority, after several weeks of public comment. 

At a recent reception at a Long Beach gallery, many artists who have been inspired by the barrier islands, like Bill Nelson, said drilling rigs could tarnish something priceless.

"The solitude and peace and quiet, which can be lost if we had the drilling. ’Cause I don’t want our barrier islands to be like Dauphin Island where you can sit there and hear a ship superintendent talk, on the oil rigs, you can hear bangin’ and all sorts of kind of noise."

While some  environmental and tourism groups oppose drilling one mile from the islands, Gov. Phil Bryant says the state can find a balance.

"We are not going to jeopardize our tourism industry with energy recovery efforts. But I think they can co-exist in a very small area well outside the barrier islands."

In a study done for the 12 Miles South Coalition, consultant Jeffrey Bounds predicts the state will lose money if rigs drive away even one-out-of-30 tourists.

"Especially after the BP disaster, people will look at the lovely muddy water that we all love because it produces great seafood. They come and they visit Mississippi and they look at the muddy water and they see gas rigs, what’s the first thing they’re going to think about? Oh, the Macondo spill. Oh, my God, it’s awful."

Although some groups have asked for more time for research, Gov.  Bryant says he doesn’t plan to slow down the process.  

"We’re taking into consideration every position, whether it’s casinos or people who are concerned about tourism or the environment. But we’re not going to rush to judgment. We are methodically moving through the process, so that we know exactly what we’re doing before it ever begins."

Applications for seismic testing permits will be available beginning March 19, according to the Mississippi Development Authority. No date has been set for leasing sites for drilling. 







One of the drilling rigs off the public beach on Dauphin Island.



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