A “Funny” Thing Happened on the Way to the Gulf Coast Energy Forum

Dr. Tom Baldwin, Biloxi, MS

March 14, 2012 

On Monday,  March 12, a coalition of the  Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network,  Occupy Biloxi and others,  assembled peacefully on Highway  90 in front of the Biloxi Gulf Coast Coliseum to conduct a protest. 

Inside the Coliseum a group was assembling to conduct a Gulf Coast Energy Summit which had been called by MS Governor Bryant and the Mississsipi  Development Authority.  Special guests of honor were Republican candidates for the presidency,  Newt  Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  It was clear to anyone paying attention that this was a Republican campaign event on the eve of the MS primary election to be held on the next day, March 13.  The main subject on the agenda was to promote off shore drilling in MS waters including those which were near the barrier islands designated as the Gulf Islands National  Seashore, a national park area.

The coalition which had assembled outside on Highway 90 at the beach had previously expressed their strong opposition to any oil or gas drilling near this protected area.  Memories were still quite  vivid of the incredible BP Deep Horizon disaster only two years earlier in 2010.  Large numbers of people had expressed their opposition to the proposed plan with nearly 85% of the letters and messages of input to the MDA and objecting to the way in which former Governor Barbour when he was leaving office just this January had put all of this in motion.  Much more will be said about Barbour’s ties to the oil and gas industry for many years in future publications but he managed to attract attention of a lot of people with his extraordinary act to grant pardons to over 200 prisoners and cause a considerable distraction.

The purpose  of this blog is to present the experience of those with the 12 Miles South Coalition on the day of the protest,  March 12.  It was a memorable event in several respects and there were several members of the press present at the start.  But the results of press reports will show that the opposition to the MS government’s position were  not fairly or adequately represented.  My intent is to show the evidence for that.

The announced assembly time was 8:45am with a press conference beginning around 9:00am.  Prior telephone conversations on behalf of the Coalition had been held between one of our Occupy Biloxi members, Dr. Will Watson,  and the Chief of the Biloxi Police Department to assure we would have no difficulties. We received those assurances and a thank you for our pre-notification.

 About  45 people,  mostly mature adults of average age about 4o+ assembled, and a representative of the 12 Miles South Coalition, Captain Louis Skrmetta began with a statement of our position.  Most people were carrying signs showing that our opposition to the Energy Summit was focused on the protection of the barrier islands;  thus the name “12 Miles South” to provide a protective environment and also one which would protect the tourists and visitor to our area as well as the citizenry. 

Dr. Jeffrey Bounds had previously done careful analysis of the importance of the tourist industry and had compared it with the state revenue from oil and gas drilling and had shown the latter to be nearly 10 times larger.  Just from a simple cost-benefit analysis this was a threat too  great to risk.  Those calculations had been presented years before and were recently updated.  In effect, what Governor  Bryant  was proposing was to trade off considerable revenue from the tourist industry to the oil and gas industry with promises that the former would not be affected. 

Tell  that to the victims of the BP oil spill many  of whom  are still suffering and will for  many years to come.    A picture from the Mississippi  Press is below showing coalition members: Louis Skrmetta (captain of Ship Island tours), Louie Miller (Director of MS Sierra Club), and  Dr.  Jeffrey Bounds (performed economic study). Louis S. was interrupted by Biloxi Police and informed we had to keep moving–standing in place (and speeches) are not allowed so the speaker amplifier was mounted on a cart.

The picture below shows  from left  to right coalition members:  Louis Skrmetta,  Jeff Bounds and Louie Miller.  http://blog.gulflive.com/mississippi-press-news/2012/03/bryant_touts_energy_policy_off.html

 For the record, here is what the group faced on Monday in our coalition protest event. Louis Skrmetta is being shown the city ordinance that prohibits standing in one place (not moving). This is from the Sun Herald on March 13:

“TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Louis Skrmetta (left) is told by Biloxi police that the 12 Mile South Coalition can protest only if they continue to move. The protestors cannot stand still and protest but have to constantly walking back in forth.–” Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/2012/03/12/3813281/gas-prices-fire-up-republican.html#storylink=cpy 

Another  “funny” part is presented in the image below.  It shows that the real obstruction to movement came from the police themselves.  They parked their cars to attempt to stop us by parking their cars in a lane which restricted entry into the Coliseum and they were not directing traffic:  

The event inside the Coliseum itself was reported widely as the political purpose intended.  Both Gingrich and Santorum reinforced the “drill baby drill” theme with no knowledge of the special circumstances in Mississippi, particularly with regard to preservation of our Gulf Islands National Park.  Gingrich also promises $2.50 per gallon gasoline with no knowledge of how the price of oil is determined by world markets which directly affects the price of gasoline, and no knowledge of the sparcity of reserves which have been estimated off of the MS coast. 

Of course, no  mention is ever made of the greatest environmental disaster in the U.S. which remains from the BP oil spill in 2010.  It is estimated that nearly 150 million gallons of oil and perhaps millions of gallons of the dispersant, Corexit, are still unaccounted for somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.  But  what  the heck, “out of sight is out of mind” isn’t it?  Tell that to the citizens of Japan who are living with one of the greatest nuclear disasters in history caused from an earthquake.   One can’t “see” radiation either. 

There are several lessons to be learned from this effort made to inform the public of the hazards and risks involved in this careless attempt to hand over our natural resources to the oil and gas industry. Most of these are obvious and are common sense based upon your experience.  But here are just a few:

1.  No matter what precautions you take to inform the authorities in a citizen or public display of protest, be prepared for the unexpected.

2.  Expect the authorities to interpret the law they want to enforce no matter what you understand it to be.  The establishment does not like protests in whatever form it comes.

3.  Know and understand the principles and issues that you stand for and be prepared to respond accordingly.  In this case,  the issue was corporate domination of state officials and the primary principle was an expression of the First Amendment to the Constitution–free speech and the right to peaceably assemble.   I expect to write a separate blog on this subject given that it is clearly become an issue at least as important as the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

4.  Remember that the political sector and, therefore, those elected officials and those running for office have the primary attention of the corporate media.  Be prepared to tell your own story independently.

I have said nothing of the impending problems or threats that could arise for protesters through the new laws–NDAA (detention) and HR 347–both of which will be tested in the courts for Constitutionality.  More will be said about that in future blogs.  But the primary intent of this blog will be met with reproduction of the formal statement from the 12 Miles South Coalition to the Governor and the Mississippi Development Authority.  That statement appears below along with a link to the Sierra Club petition at the bottom:

 

12 Miles South statement

02/12/12 00:01
 

STATEMENT FROM THE 12 MILES SOUTH COALITION:

Public Comments on Oil and Gas Drilling Show Overwhelming Opposition

Gulfport, MS – On Wednesday, the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) released public comments that show overwhelming opposition to their proposal to open up Mississippi waters to oil and gas drilling. Responding to a public records request by the 12 Mile South Coalition, the MDA acknowledged receiving 138 comments (excluding spam), and only eight were explicitly in support of the proposal. Over 85% of the comments were in opposition, or made requests for an extension of the comment period, or some combination thereof.

“The members of the public have spoken clearly. This proposal is a bad bet for the coastal economy, the health of the Sound, and the future of Mississippi’s barrier islands,” said Louis Skrmetta with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Attractions Association. “Is the Mississippi coast going to be an oil rig destination, like Dauphin Island, or are we going to be a premier tourist destination like Florida? We can’t have both.”

All requests for extending the public comment period on the proposal were denied, despite the fact that several of the comments that MDA received were from state or federal officials, including Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, State Senator Deborah Dawkins, State Representative Bobby Moak, State Representative David Baria, State Representative Randall Patterson, and the National Park Service (NPS).

“This is an outrage and insulting not only to the public, but to our elected officials who have voiced concerns about a rush to judgment on these rules before the public has had an opportunity to properly review them,” said Louie Miller, State Director of the Mississippi Sierra Club.

One letter from NPS, the agency in charge of Gulf Islands National Seashore, reveals that MDA never directly contacted NPS about the proposal despite claims to the contrary:

“Your letter indicated that contact was made with National Park Service (NPS) Regional Director Cynthia Donner, however, Ms. Donner is the Regional Director for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), not NPS…To our knowledge, NPS was not directly contacted and we learned of the proposed regulations after the holidays through a press release which was provided to us by one of our staff members…”

It also appears that MDA failed to release all of the comments they received. The release does not include any of the comments delivered at a public hearing in Gautier, and even though other written comments from agencies and groups like the NPS, National Parks Conservation Association, Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Islands Conservancy, and Sierra Club are listed in an index of comments received, their comments were not included in the MDA release.

“I submitted eight pages of detailed and specific comments via email, and while my email is listed in a table of responses in the MDA public records release, I don’t see my email or eight pages of comments,” said Don Abrams, a resident of Ocean Springs, “Now I’m uncertain whether my input is being considered.”

In another one of the unreleased letters, Daniel Brown of the National Park Service pointed out that “[t]he Mississippi islands are among the most pristine examples of intact coastal barrier ecosystems remaining…One of the primary attractions is the opportunity to enjoy unencumbered scenic view sheds of the Gulf of Mexico, the night sky and other recreational attributes…” And the letter concludes by stating that “the NPS opposes final development and subsequent issuance of the proposed rules for offshore seismic surveying and minerals leasing within Mississippi state waters, as these proposed rules are written.”

The stakes are high both environmentally and economically, yet in their rush to push this proposal, MDA has clearly failed to recognize the extent of public opposition and adequately address the concerns of the public, and state and federal officials.

“The Mississippi Development Authority simply cannot, in good faith, approve oil and gas drilling in Mississippi’s water,” said Raleigh Hoke, Mississippi Organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network.


Please sign and submit this petition to Governor Bryant:   “Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and other state leaders continue to press forward on this reckless proposal. So far they have shown little regard to concerns being raised about economic impacts to tourism and fisheries, marred views, light and noise pollution, and risks from industry spills and accidents like the 2010 BP oil disaster.
We need to show the outrage that is due. Our state’s leaders seem to think that they can pull a fast one on the people of Mississippi who value our coast and want to see it protected.”

http://action.sierraclub.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=230481.0&dlv_id=199081

action.sierraclub.org

In 2005, thousands of citizens acted to defeat a misguided proposal to drill along Mississippi’s coast — a move that would disrupt and endanger the wild legacy and recreational value of our islands and beaches.Now it’s time to stop state leaders from trying to go down this path a second time.Say n…

 

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