BILOXI -- Opponents of offshore drilling in the Mississippi Sound hope a judge will block rules on drilling and exploration after a Jan. 6 hearing even though they've been approved by the Department of Marine Resources.
Robert Wiygal, attorney for the Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club, said he expects that hearing to last a day but he has no idea when the judge will rule.
"I can no more predict that than I could which way a cat will leap," he said.
The environmental groups filed suit in 2012 in Hinds County to block rules writing by the Mississippi Development Authority because it hasn't researched the impact drilling would have. MDA held hearings on the challenge and rejected it last year, then the environmental groups took their case to court.
Wiygul said the legislation that authorized the MDA to write rules on leasing exploration and drilling sites also required the MDA to study the economic impact those activities would have on the Coast. He hopes the judge sends the rules back to MDA until it completes that review.
"What the Legislature said is, 'Look before you leap,' and they want to leap without looking here," he said. "So we're asking the judge to tell the agency, no, you've got it backwards."
MDA has neither held nor scheduled a lease sale, MDA spokesman Jeff Rent said.
The DMR on Tuesday told the MDA that its rules didn't conflict with DMR's Mississippi Coast Program. But, the letter from DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller to MDA said it would still need to get permission from DMR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Quality should anyone apply to explore or drill in Coast wetlands. Based on a release from DMR, some in the crowd at the Commission on Marine Resources later in the day were confused about what the DMR had granted.
"I guess what the press release attempted to say is we believe MDA can have their process based on the rules they follow and that won't interfere with our own process by which we evaluate environmental impacts," Miller said. "But we were not prepared to substitute what MDA had provided for our own rules."
He said that it appeared to him that MDA wanted to issue one permit without having to come back to DMR.
"We wanted to make sure we retained our mandate, which is to have companies apply to this agency so we can do a case-by-case review ourselves about impacts," he said. "They have to receive authorization from us based on environmental impacts. Our application that we have now mentions specifically seismic activity."
Seismic activity is one way companies explore for natural gas and oil.
"So they would apply and we would evaluate that specific application on a case-by-case basis," he said, "instead of some blanket authority that says we are not going to review these each time they come in."
Steve Shepard, the Coast chairman for the Sierra Club, saw a little room for optimism in Miller's announcement.
"It sounds like Jamie Miller did the best he could for us in that he isn't giving away the power that we on the Coast need and I understand that power is going to come through this commission," he said. "So I'm looking for three votes that are going to say no every time a seismic permit comes in and every time an oil rig permit comes in."
Miller, though, said not all permits would come before the commission and the DMR administration could deal with some of them without CMR input.
Shepard, and Louis Skrmetta of the 12 Miles South Coalition, which wants drilling at least 12 miles from the barrier islands, both pointed out that an economic impact study has been conducted by Jeffrey K. Bounds, an engineering and local government consultant from Cambridge, Mass., which indicates drilling won't create enough jobs to replace those that would be lost in tourism.
"Why doesn't the MDA hire somebody, I'm sure they can, and dispute our findings?" Shepard asked. "They don't dispute it."
Skrmetta said the study predicts drilling would cause a 50 percent drop in tourism.
"Especially if it's one mile off Horn Island and East Ship Island," he said. "One only has to look a few miles east to Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay to see what industrialization has done for the tourism industry over there."
Baldwin County, he said, saw the handwriting on the wall and asked the governor to put a moratorium on any drilling activities near Gulf Shores or Orange Beach.
Beside the environmental activists, political, business and tourism organizations have all expressed opposition to offshore drilling in Mississippi waters, the opponents say.
Members of the Coalition delivered a letter on Dec. 13, signed by more than 40 businesses and organizations, to Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the MDA and the MDMR opposing oil and gas activities within the 12 miles south of the barrier islands.