The Mississippi Development Authority’s (MDA) rules governing offshore seismic survey permitting and natural gas leasing have been posted and are expected to go into effect in mid-March, bringing the return of offshore gas drilling in Mississippi one step closer to reality.

MDA spokesman Dan Turner told NGI that its rules were first posted to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s website on Feb. 15 and should take effect within 30 days, thereby opening approximately 186,000 acres — about 38% of Mississippi’s offshore waters — to seismic and leasing activities.

“In 2004 the legislature moved seismic survey permitting and leasing responsibilities to the MDA,” Turner said Tuesday. “We were in the process of putting those into effect when [Hurricane] Katrina hit. That put everything on hold until late last year, when [Gov. Haley Barbour] directed us to get back on track,” (see Daily GPI, Dec. 22, 2011).

It’s believed that 350-380 Bcf of natural gas resources are located in the areas the state legislature has opened for drilling, which is primarily the area south of the state’s barrier islands and the easternmost portion of the Mississippi Sound. One-mile buffer zones have been established to protect the barrier islands themselves — specifically Cat, Ship, Horn and Petit Bois islands — and around oyster reefs in the western part of the sound.

“We will be able to put stipulations into the leases,” Turner said when asked if well permits would be issued in more ecologically sensitive areas. “We don’t expect there to be a lot [of permits that need additional stipulations], but there are some areas where there have been concerns raised. We’ll look at those on a case-by-case basis.”

Turner said the MDA would also be required to hold an annual auction for leases, but “whether that would come into this calendar year or not remains to be seen. We also have the authority to reject any bids where we felt the price wasn’t sufficient.”

Jack Norris, president of Gulf Coast Business Council, told NGI that offshore activity in Mississippi has been a controversial subject for years, driven largely by concerns that drilling could harm the environment or tourism.

“I have zero doubt that these industries can coexist in a healthy manner,” Norris said. “The coast is just diverse. We have areas that are very conducive to this type of industrial activity; the Port of Pascagoula would make a great location. We’re obviously excited about that potential and believe that it can be done in a manner that doesn’t have a negative impact on our more tourism-related industries on the coast.”

Norris said seismic testing — which Turner said could occur this year — was essential “to truly assess what resources we do have. My view is once the seismic testing is done, if there are concerns they can be worked out because you will know what you’re dealing with and where. There’s a clear way to balance everything.”

Turner said the public comment period for the MDA’s rules concluded Jan. 31. He said the agency received about 180 comments, but fewer than a dozen actually addressed the rules themselves.

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