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Wilderness Site May See Oil Drilling

May 31, 2005|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

GULFPORT, Miss. — Tucked away in the 96-page emergency military spending bill signed by President Bush this month are four paragraphs that give energy companies the right to explore for oil and gas inside a sprawling national park.

The amendment written by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) codifies Mississippi's claim to mineral rights under federal lands and allows drilling for natural gas under the Gulf Islands National Seashore -- a thin necklace of barrier islands that drapes the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.

As a preliminary step to drilling, the rider permits seismic testing, which involves detonating sound-wave explosions to locate oil and gas deposits in the park. Two of the five Mississippi islands are wilderness areas, and the environs are home to federally protected fish and birds, a large array of sea turtles and the gulf's largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins.

The legislation marks the first time the federal government has sanctioned seismic exploration on national park property designated as wilderness -- which carries with it the highest level of protection.

Energy exploration has been allowed on rare occasions in other parts of national parks over the last decade. Since taking office, the Bush administration has been pushing aggressively for oil and gas drilling in traditionally protected areas. Moreover, administration officials have been whittling away at a long-standing policy aimed at sheltering parks from the ill effects of oil and gas exploration initiated outside park borders.

Mississippi officials and the Department of the Interior have not agreed on the extent of energy exploration in the park. And there are still unresolved conflicts, the most pressing of which is how setting seismic charges on wilderness islands is compatible with the constraints of the federal Wilderness Act, which prohibits ground disturbance and almost any type of development or construction.

"Seismic testing inside a park, in wilderness, with endangered species, arguably inside a place where the mineral rights arguably belong to all of us ... I think that's particularly outrageous," said Dennis Galvin, former deputy director of the National Park Service. Galvin testified before Congress in 2000, warning of environmental havoc if energy development was allowed in the national seashore.

Jack Moody, a geologist with the Mississippi Development Authority, which is responsible for energy leasing, said the authorization shouldn't be cause for alarm. The law pertains only to Mississippi's mineral claims. "We want the right to develop the minerals that the state owns," he said. "But that doesn't mean we will go through there with a bulldozer."

The Gulf Islands National Seashore has long been a Gulf Coast playground. The small islands, with white sand beaches ringed by clear shallow water, sit perched on the edge of what locals affectionately call the Redneck Riviera.

The islands extend in a thin network from Mississippi to Florida. Alabama's Dauphin Island, which is surrounded by extensive oil and gas development, is not included in the park.

In Mississippi, boats ferry day-trippers to West Ship Island where visitors loll on beaches or visit Ft. Massachusetts, built in the 1860s to shore up coastal defenses. Horn and Petit Bois islands are federally designated wilderness and are accessible by private boat or charter for campers, fishermen and others seeking solitude and quiet.

Park officials have been so insistent on maintaining the islands' primitive nature that self-propelled water skis are banned in their waters -- the Mississippi Sound to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

Walking amid Horn Island's expansive dune system, park ranger Ben Moore pointed to the island's unblemished vista -- a tabletop of water running unbroken to the horizon.

"A lot of people don't understand that this flat horizon is what people from Nebraska come here to see, it's what people from New York come here to see," he said, adding that oil rigs, even if planted a mile away from the boundary of the park as anticipated, would be highly visible structures on the horizon.

The Cochran amendment sets the stage for sinking 16-story drilling platforms in state waters that would be in full view of residents and tourists who flock to the gulf's beaches. In the last 60 years, five wells have been drilled in Mississippi state waters, and none of them has produced oil or gas. But the state now contends that shallow deposits of natural gas could be tapped.

Proponents of exploration said that state and federal regulation would continue to protect the islands and their wildlife.

"By the time someone produces natural gas, they will have gone through a number of state agencies and a number of federal agencies," said Joe Sims, president of the Alabama and Mississippi division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Assn.

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