From left to right, Reed Guice, Gail Bishop, Beth Carriere, Dr. Jeff Bounds, and Cynthia Sarthou. As many of our readers know, there is currently an effort afoot to open Mississippi's waters to oil and gas exploration, production and drilling. On June 28th, Gulf Restoration Network worked with our partners at the 12 Miles South Coalition to hold a forum in Gulfport, MS, featuring a four-expert panel on the subject.
For over an hour, the crowded room was exposed to facts, charts and photos - or, what forum moderator Reed Guice calls "the cold hard numbers" - on what might happen if rigs start dotting the Mississippi horizon. The pollution potential in opening up Mississippi's waters goes without saying. But according to the panelists - a National Park Service representative, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (MGCCVB), an engineering consultant and GRN's Executive Director Cynthia Sarthou - that is only the tip of the iceberg. Drilling consequences are as much economic as environmental.
"The National Seashore provides resources for our children of today and tomorrow," said Gail Bishop, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park which includes Mississippi's barrier islands. Bishop began with some fun facts on the 41-year-old Gulf Islands National Seashore, notably that 80% of this national park is underwater, and that it houses some invaluable habitats like seagrass beds and bayous. There is also a variety of wildlife, including dolphins. There is much to lose if this area is opened to drilling. Bishop also noted one of the Gulf Island National Seashore's biggest contributions to the community: tourist income. And even in the absence of another catastrophe like the BP oil disaster, vacationers will not be drawn to a landscape crowded with oil rigs.
MGCCVB Executive Director Beth Carriere mentioned that coastal tourism generates $1.8 billion dollars per-year in economic activity for Mississippi, and that the 3 counties (out of the state's 82) bring in 32% of tourism taxes and fees for the entire state! In the wake of the BP disaster, MGCCVB and other tourism entities are spending millions of dollars to promote the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a premier tourist destination. Carriere is not against drilling; she is for the scenery that helps draw people to Mississippi's coast. "This seashore is a national park," Carriere says. "Wouldn't the city of Tupelo complain if a well was established in front of Elvis's home?"
GRN's Cynthia Sarthou.Animated, tech-savvy Dr. Jeffrey Bounds, an engineering government consultant who authored the report "Drilling by the Numbers, Again," also focused on the very real economic concerns over opening state waters to drilling. According to Dr. Bounds, experts don't expect to find any oil in Mississippi's waters, and only relatively small reserves of natural gas. Drilling may not yield as much money as companies hope. Its effect on the Coast's appeal, however, is close to a certainty: Once again, people looking to appreciate the natural world will not be thrilled by rigs potentially visible from 15 miles away. Tourism makes up enough of Mississippi's economy for decreasing visits to have a net negative effect on state revenue. "The state budget will have to be reduced," Bounds explains. "It will have less income than before they put the rigs out there, and will have lost a lot of tourism."
The panelists' point was, in so many words, that Mississippi's economy may take a huge blow if its coast becomes drilling ground. Cynthia Sarthou largely focused on potential wildlife impacts: Before a company drills for oil, they carry out seismic testing. That entails setting up air guns behind boats and "firing" every few seconds. These shots, sometimes higher than 250 decibels, are nightmares for marine mammals that echo-locate: If an animal relies on sound for food and mating, man-made sounds like these can cause them to move, and throw off what Sarthou calls their "energy balance." Sarthou also noted the threat of mercury pollution from drilling muds, and that current practices may produce overly saline waters. Accidental discharges of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, a threat that nearby Dauphin Island already has to live with, could also be bad news for coastal tourism. "What happens to tourism," poses Sarthou, "when you have one of these releases and everybody has to duck and cover?"
Opening Mississippi's coast to oil and gas drilling is a huge gamble, as shown in areas where it is already practiced. For example, in Alabama tourism leaders worked to ban new rigs near tourist centers like Gulfshores after seeing how rigs around Dauphin Island impacted tourism, and Louisiana's coast is literally disappearing in part due to decades of oil and gas activities.
"We sell memories," stressed Carriere. "These are experiences, what people have seen smelled, tasted and felt. It's lasting. And it's important for our leaders to remember this. I pray that they will."
Jacob Dilson is a Media and Communications Intern with GRN.