Drilling in state waters could soon be a reality

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - How and when should natural gas drilling take place in Mississippi state waters? That was the subject of a public hearing Friday night in Jackson County.

State lawmakers have given the green light to drilling in waters just south of the barrier islands, and in certain areas of the Mississippi Sound. State officials estimated there are 350 billion cubic feet of natural gas in state waters. If all that gas is extracted, it could mean a royalty windfall of up to $523 million, mostly for education in the state.

Not everyone is impressed by those figures. Raleigh Hoke is with the Gulf Restoration Network.

"The bottom line is that these drilling rigs will be seen from pretty much any city or town on the coast on a clear day and definitely from the barrier islands," Hoke said. "And that's going to have an impact on tourists. Tourists want to come for our clean beaches, the casinos and the beautiful natural Mississippi Sound."

The public hearing was sponsored by the Mississippi Development Authority. Some who showed up were even more critical, like Maxine Ramsay.

"I feel that the oil companies are running our country into the ground per se, and I just don't like it," Ramsay said.

Under MDA guidelines, drilling rigs like those in Alabama could be placed within a mile of the barrier islands. State officials defend their position. Dan Turner is the communications director for MDA.

"One thing that people really need to understand is that MDA is as concerned about the aesthetics as anyone, because also housed within MDA is the Department of Tourism," Turner said.  "We're all about having as many people enjoy the Gulf Coast as possibly can. We're not going to do something jeopardize that."

Officials with MDA say the decision has been made. It's been made by the state legislature to allow for gas drilling in state waters. However, opponents of drilling say they are not about to give up yet.

Capt. Louis Skrmetta runs Ship Island Excursions.  "This is not a done deal as far as the tourism industry and concerned citizens that care about these islands," Skrmetta said.  "We're not going to sit still for it. We want to see more public input, more transparency. What's happening here? Why are they pushing this? What is the rush?"

Rush or not, unless policy dramatically changes in the near future, rigs like those across the state line could soon be a part of the coastal landscape.

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