JACKSON — The day before Mississippi’s primary election, Gov. Phil Bryant and GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will participate in a summit in Biloxi sponsored in part by a group pushing for offshore drilling in state water.
The 2012 Gulf Coast Energy Summit will be March 12 at the Coast Coliseum. Organizers are hopeful other invitees, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, along with governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, and a host of other state and federal officials will attend. It’s open to the public.
The summit is sponsored by the Mississippi Energy Policy Institute and the national Consumer Energy Alliance. MEPI was created in 2009, a spinoff of then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s Momentum Mississippi planning initiative. It’s recently led the public relations charge to promote offshore drilling in state waters, a controversial issue in South Mississippi.
MEPI President Patrick Sullivan, a former Barbour policy adviser, said he believes the sentiment on the Coast about offshore drilling has changed since 2004-2005, in part from consumers being hit by high and unstable energy costs. When Barbour and the state Legislature in 2004-05, at the behest of the oil and gas lobby, changed laws to open state waters to drilling, Coast community, business, tourism and political leaders fought the move. Hurricane Katrina sidelined the efforts, but before he left office last year, Barbour pushed for offshore exploration and leasing to move forward and Bryant is now following through.
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“We put our opinion out there,” Sullivan said. “I think things are different now and most notably, we’ve had the education effort on the front end that started last year. I think people now have a better understanding of what this will look like and where it will be and what the benefits are . A lot of people’s opinions over recent years has changed, because they’ve seen the damage high energy prices can do in a state like Mississippi.”
But Louie Miller, president of the state Sierra Club and a leader of the 12 Miles South Coalition that has fought Coast oil and gas drilling since 2004, said that while Coast opposition to drilling isn’t as vocal as it was before Katrina, he still believes most residents and business leaders oppose it.
“I assume this summit is going to be ‘Drill baby, drill,’” Miller said, “because that’s where Gingrich’s money is coming from. It’ll be people on the payroll of oil and gas companies. It seems like Gov. Bryant is buying into some of that. At the end of the day, those chickens will come home to roost, because the real question is do we want to drill the barrier islands and a national park and destroy a tourism economy in the process?”
Sullivan said energy production and planning are key to Mississippi’s economic future.
“The long-term goal in Mississippi has got to be how to take the best bite of that apple, and expand energy capability,” Sullivan said. “Twenty years from now, 10 years and even five years, industry is gong to go where the most reliable sources of energy are and where they think it’s going to be a reliable source for a long time.”
Sullivan said he expects at least one other presidential candidate and at least one other area governor to attend the March 12 summit.
Bryant made increasing state energy production a key plank in his platform, but promised he wants to do it “wisely” and protect the environment and tourism.
The national Consumer Energy Alliance, the other big sponsor of the Coast summit, describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that wants to expand the dialogue about U.S. and states’ energy production. But critics say CEA, with heavy oil and gas industry funding and ties to Washington lobbyists, is a front group for the industry.
Miller said: “Both these groups are just fronts for oil and gas. They want to come down here and whip everybody into a frenzy that we need to drill and I think they are making a mistake if they think a majority of people want it. There’s a difference between drilling out on the Outer Continental Shelf and in a national park that drives tourism down here.”
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