Thousands Gather To Rally Against Drilling Near Barrier Islands

To drill or not to drill, that is the question that has created heated debate in Mississippi.

A crowd of thousands gathered Sunday at the Coast Coliseum in Biloxi to rally against offshore drilling near the state's barrier islands.

Leaders with the "12 Miles South Coalition" who organized the rally are calling it a success and hope Mississippi's elected officials will listen to what they say is the will of the people.

It's rare to see republicans and democrats agreeing on anything.

On this issue, however, politicians from both sides seem to be on the same side.

County Supervisors, tourism and economic leaders and attorneys have also banded together for this non-partisan, non-profit, grass roots coalition called "12 Miles South" a group that seeks to limit such drilling to at least 12 miles south of the barrier islands.

It's chairman says he's proud of the large turnout for their first public rally.

"We are very pleased with the turnout, yep we are really excited about it and we are going to fulfill our mission today (Sunday)," said 12 Miles Chairman Robert "Bones" Barq.

The group's attorney and secretary, Henry Laird says their mission is clear, make the pristine and very fragile barrier islands off limits to oil and gas drilling and exploration.

"The state of Mississippi owns three miles out beyond the islands and the state has standing to object to all sorts of activities beyond that. For example, Florida has stopped oil and gas production 100 miles off their coast, all we're asking for is 12 miles south of the islands," said 12 Miles Secretary and Attorney Henry Laird.

Barq says as a child, he adored the islands and wants to protect them for future generations.

"Our forefathers protected them and we're trying to protect them and save them for our children, their children," said Barq. "The main reason why I'm passionate about it, is these islands are sacred they should be preserved instead of destroyed."

12 Miles South Coalition members say, if you agree, there is something you can do.

"I think I would first of all write may legislators, I would write Congressmen Taylor, Senators Lott and Cochran and let them know your position on this," said Laird.

"We're begging our politicians on the Gulf Coast, to join hands, get together, our congressmen, our senators and our governor to do the right thing and listen to the will of the people," said Barq.

Those on the other side of this controversial issue say Mississippi could lose millions of dollars in potential tax revenue if drilling is not allowed.

Oil and Gas Association Representative Joe Sims spoke earlier this month at the Gulfport Business Club in support of drilling.

Sims says while he's sensitive to concerns about the safety of the barrier islands, he says natural gas drilling can be done safely.

Gulfport Representative Roger Ishee also spoke at that meeting.

He says there's no reason why Mississippi should not reap the benefits just like our neighboring states.

Roger Ishee, Gulfport:

"We need this money. We need this gas. But the main thing we need is the gas. We're talking about energy," said Ishee at the August 2nd meeting.

"But we think natural gas is also, could be, an important Mississippi asset that we'd like to develop through science. And we think we can obviously do it safely and in an environmentally responsible way," said Sims at the August 2nd meeting.