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Mississippi Plans Offshore Development; Citizens Protest

Harrison County, Mississippi supervisors voted unanimously last Tuesday on a resolution opposing oil or gas exploration or drilling any closer than 12 nautical miles south of the barrier islands, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore just off the county's coastline. The resolution will go on to the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), which is drawing up plans for development of the state's offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

While endorsing its opposition resolution, the coastal county supervisors conceded they do not have any authority over the offshore areas, which are controlled by the state.

Several actions by state and federal legislators recently have paved the way for oil and gas development. Last fall the state legislature shifted jurisdiction over energy-related activities in the offshore territory from an environmental agency to the more business-focused MDA. Mississippi is the only state bordering the Gulf of Mexico that has no oil or gas development in its state waters, which are bounded by the island chain.

On another front, Mississippi's U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran has helped speed up the process by including an amendment to an emergency federal defense authorization bill, signed by the president last month, sanctioning oil and gas exploration in the wilderness islands through directional drilling from outside the park, and endorsing the state's right to the minerals under the islands.

The amendment also allows seismic testing. Control of the mineral rights under the park have been in dispute since the state turned the island area over to the U.S. Park Service in 1972. The state has maintained it retained the mineral rights, but the park service has refused to allow development.

A spokesperson for the senator said the governor and attorney general had asked for the amendment to "clarify" the state's rights.

Very vocal opponents attending recent local citizens gatherings point to the disturbance to wildlife and the loss of tourist dollars if drilling rigs pop up along the shoreline which has been a popular coastal vacation spot.

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