BILL MINOR: Barbour handles BP issue like other big business: Softly

You can always count on Haley Barbour to defend the big corporations when things go wrong. So it’s no surprise that the Mississippi governor has consistently downgraded the seriousness of British Petroleum’s deepwater well uncontrollably spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Even Barbour’s four fellow Gulf state Republican governors have become openly critical of BP or have distanced themselves from the oil giant as the scope of the disaster has grown more menacing to the economy and ecology of the Gulf region.
Several of the other GOP governors have changed their minds about allowing offshore drilling. But not Barbour. “A bunch of liberal elites were hoping this would be the Three Mile Island of offshore drilling,” Barbour had told the Mississippi Manufacturers Association in Biloxi a week ago.
Barbour ridiculed comparing the extent of the Gulf oil spill to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Ironically, two days after Barbour made the remark, federal authorities said that the volume of the Gulf Spill had already far eclipsed the Valdez spill. And BP’s deepwater horizon well was still spewing an estimated 10 to 12 million gallons per day.
Quite noticeably, while Gulf area Republican governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bob Riley of Alabama and Charlie Crist of Florida all met with President Obama when the Democratic president made his widely publicized visit to the thus-far hardest-hit Louisiana coast on Friday, May 25, Barbour was not among them.
Jindal, who had been believed to be a presidential aspirant and had been a severe critic of federal spending programs, has not only softened his criticism but has been beating the drums to get federal help to dredge up sand berms to protect his state’s coast. Despite misgivings expressed by several federal agencies, President Obama gave Jindal an okay to erect an experimental 10 mile barrier. The Louisiana governor was grateful but said he wanted 23 more such barriers.
Saying that not even “a milk jug of oil” had gotten to Mississippi’s coast, at a news conference Barbour repeated his previous statement that the biggest danger from the spill was “overreaction,” and he blamed the news media for exaggerations. When BP began its “top kill” effort to stop the gushing oil, Barbour expressed confidence that it would work. For six days the world expectantly watched the operation via the internet. Then last Saturday, BP had to admit that the “top kill” had failed, It was thought to be the best hope to plug the runaway well other than drilling relief wells which will take another two months to complete.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who hopes to become the next governor, seemed to be singing from the same song book as Barbour in downgrading the oil spill’s effect. But he even came out with a goofier remark that Gulf Coast residents couldn’t be smelling fumes similar to gasoline coming from the oil-drenched gulf waters. What they were smelling Bryant added, “may be coming from peoples’ lawnmowers.”
Adding to that tomfoolery, the Republican lieutenant governor suggested that the tar balls that had shown up on Dauphin Island and some on Mississippi’s barrier islands were not toxic to being picked up and could possibly be “recycled.” A few days later, Bryant sought to backtrack by saying his only goal in making the remarks was to combat the tone of national news which discouraged tourists and vacationers from coming to the Coast. But critics, such as State Democratic director Sam Hall said that Bryant had been “ludicrous in his statements” and rather than cheerleading for Mississippi “he’s in campaign mode…(and) illustrating he is not up to the job of governor.”
Naturally because Barbour as a Washington lobbyist was known to have several big oil companies as clients (but not BP) many are wondering if his soft-pedaling BP’s massive oil spill may have something to do with bringing the oil giant into the portfolio of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. Notably, a television commercial funded by BP featured Barbour and his wife, Marsha, seeking to lure tourists to come to the Gulf Coast and saying that the oil spill posed no threat.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at

Bill Minor

Click video to hear audio