House, Senate Approve Offshore Drilling Bills

Similar bills that cleared the House and Senate Thursday could open Mississippi waters in the Gulf of Mexico to natural gas drilling.

The Senate version, which passed 39-6, would move oil and gas leasing authority from the Department of Environmental Quality to the Mississippi Development Authority. It has been rare in recent years for DEQ to issue oil and gas leases.

The House version, approved 92-30, would put a four-member board in charge of leases. The board would be made up of the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general and the state treasurer. MDA would help with marketing.

The bills are being promoted by the oil and gas industry. The House bill now moves to the Senate, and the Senate bill goes to the House.

The Senate bill would ban drilling inside the Mississippi Sound, except near Petit Bois Island in Jackson County. All other drilling could take place only outside the barrier islands, about 12 miles offshore.

The House bill would ban drilling in the Mississippi Sound off Harrison County - but it would allow drilling inside the sound off Hancock and Jackson counties.

"It's the first time in 15 years I've seen the Senate be more environmentally responsible than the House,'' said Sierra Club lobbyist Louie Miller.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said society should start looking for alternative energy sources rather than endanger nature.

"It seems there are not any bad ideas that escape the attention of this Legislature,'' Bryan said.

As the Senate bill originally was written, it would have allowed drilling between the shoreline and the barrier islands.

"The majority of people from the three coast counties are against drilling in the Mississippi Sound,'' said Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, who successfully pushed an amendment to allow drilling only outside the most of the islands.

The House debated several amendments. One defeated amendment by Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, would have allowed people in the three coastal counties to vote on whether to allow natural gas drilling.

Opponents of Peranich's amendment said any natural gas found in the Sound would bring in money for schools across Mississippi, not only for areas on the coast.

The bills are Senate Bill 2853 and House Bill 1634.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)