BILL MINOR: Bryant soft-pedals spill while cultivating Coast votes

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Phil Bryant must have figured that the monstrous BP oil spill in the Gulf was a good opportunity to pick up some brownie points for his 2011 gubernatorial race, so he started hanging out on the Gulf Coast and weighing in with words of wisdom that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the news media said it was.
If you thought you were smelling oil fumes, you were wrong. It was probably from your lawn mower, Bryant added, and not the millions of gallons of crude oil being spewed into the Gulf from BP’s busted deepwater horizon oil well that was moving ever closer to Mississippi’s coastline.
And the tar balls that started showing up on the barrier islands and the beaches were harmless and could probably be recycled. Start up a new industry. Like manna from heaven. And create new jobs – that’s what I’m all about.
Cozying up to BP would be one way of showing his gratitude to the entire oil and gas industry which dropped $70,000 into his campaign fund the past two years.
The more the Republican lieutenant governor talked, the more he seemed to fall on his face. Next day, a headline in the the Sun Herald in Biloxi noted he was “changing his tune on oil smell.” The Sun Herald’s Geoff Pender pointed out, even as Gov. Haley Barbour began tempering his remarks about the oil disaster, “critics say Bryant hasn’t used such temperance.”
After BP gave the state $15 million to promote tourism, the Biloxi paper on May 25 said in a news story that Coast tourism representatives had negotiated with the Mississippi Development Authority to jointly spend the remaining $11 million. According to the story, MDA would use its advertising agency, Frontier Agencies of Jackson, but no commission would be paid. Frontier is also Bryant’s political campaign ad agency.
For two years before the BP oil spill, Bryant was cultivating campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and its lobbyists. His campaign finance report for 2009 showed he received $47,000 from some 30 individuals and companies connected to the industry. The previous year, his campaign fund got $26,000 from sources in the industry.
Notably, $5,000 came from Denbury Resources, its PAC or lobbyist. Denbury, Mississippi’s largest oil producer, it will be remembered from a column by this writer a few months ago, would have been the beneficiary of a Senate bill exempting carbon dioxide from sales taxes (Denbury owns the huge CO2 reservoir in Rankin County). The bill passed by the Senate under the guise of being for economic development. But the House scrapped the Senate bill and passed its own bill that levied a one-half of 1 percent sales tax similar to the tax on natural gas used for industrial purposes. Later the Senate passed the House version unanimously.
Originally found by Shell Oil approximately 10 years ago, the CO2 reservoir remained under-utilized until Denbury took it over. The CO2 dome is Mississippi’s most important new natural resource discovered in many years, and it is used to prime abandoned old wells to recover remaining oil.
At the same time Bryant has been soft-pedaling the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster, he has been grabbing ink in coast newspapers, revealing previously unknown talents as a runner and history devotee. He proclaimed himself a “real history buff” when he played French explorer Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville for re-enactment of his 1699 landing on Biloxi Bay and establishing the first permanent settlement in the Mississippi Territory. Then, when Bryant was on hand for awards after Ocean Springs’ 5K run to begin its “Discovery Weekend” he revealed he is also a dedicated runner, logging four miles four times a week.
If that wasn’t enough to nail down the hefty Gulf Coast vote in 2011, Bryant put frosting on the cake by appointing a Senate select committee headed by Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport, (who happens to be running for Bryant’s present job) to study the BP oil disaster. You can bet it’s going to solve the mystery of the spill that has eluded everyone.

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