CHARLIE MITCHELL: Governor will head effort to harvest offshore energy

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Mississippi can catapult out of the doldrums, Gov. Phil Bryant says. One emphasis will be assisting the growth of Jackson’s array of medical facilities. St. Dominic, Baptist and University medical centers could be the core of a regional health care supercenter.
Bryant has seen the numbers on Houston’s hospitals and clinics and their economic impact in Texas. We’re talking thousands of jobs, billions of dollars.
Another will be offshore energy exploration, which could be almost as big – but will be controversial.
In his first State of the State message, Bryant said he wants to address lingering issues that hold Mississippi back – too little education, too much welfare, too many teen pregnancies. All who served before him had the same goals. All learned there are no rapid, sweeping governmental solutions for what are, in many ways, personal problems. If progress comes at all, it’s incremental.
Not so with energy.
“To enhance and grow our energy economy, we should look no further than our own Gulf of Mexico,” Bryant said. “We are proceeding on a thoughtful, steady course for offshore energy recovery in a limited area primarily southeast of Mississippi’s barrier islands. This recovery effort could produce 350 billion cubic feet of natural gas to help fuel America and Mississippi’s economy.”
Any specific steps toward opening the area will attract opposition and, perhaps, litigation.
People have an affinity for the oceans and there’s instant hostility toward human intrusion – especially when that intrusion means derricks in the sunset.
While natural gas fields do not pose the same risks of pollution that crude rigs do – and with which Gulf Coast residents and businesses are very familiar – it is hazardous work. The chance of fires and explosions is higher with the more volatile gas.
It’s work the risks, Bryant said. He pointed out that Louisiana and Alabama have long had rigs offshore, but didn’t mention that proposals to explore near other scenic coasts, including Florida, have been shouted down time and again.
“This recovery effort could produce 350 billion cubic feet of natural gas to help fuel America and Mississippi’s economy,” Bryant said. To prove he’s learned from politicians past, he tossed in the kiddies. Taxes on gas from the Gulf would “generate hundreds of millions of dollars … is critical to our children’s future,” he said.
Bryant called for a calm and rational discussion of opening up new areas for energy exploration, but he made no attempt to mask his belief that government has gone too far with job- and business-killing regulations.
His proposed Mississippi Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Act demonstrates that. If enacted, every state agency would review and eliminate “meaningless regulations.” Regulations found to be necessary for a legitimate government purpose would still have to be measured against any impact on jobs.
President Obama’s tacit veto earlier this month of plans for the Keystone pipeline that would funnel oil from Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas was cited as an example of misplaced priorities. “Last week Americans saw the largest potential economic development project in America terminated by regulators and politicians in Washington. In Mississippi, I won’t stand for job-killing regulations,” Bryant said. “I believe we can modify many government rules to be more business friendly without destroying our planet or endangering lives.”
In terms of broad-based planning related to energy, leading Mississippians have not been sitting on their hands. Almost three years ago, a coalition dubbed Advance Mississippi was formed to engage in analysis. Its chairman has been Glenn McCullough Jr., former mayor of Tupelo and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) board.
Among findings is that coal is just about the only resource rare around here. Other resources, including nuclear and biomass – which Bryant also mentioned in his State of the State message – have great potential. Even using the flow of the Mississippi River to spin turbines is not, ahem, dead in the water.
Mississippi environmental preservationists are not as well-funded as those on the East Coast or West Coast, but they are vocal. Serious traction toward more offshore gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, especially if they are in view of land, will kindle more and more opposition.
Bryant might see his goal of riches from the sea, but not without a fight.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.