Shutting Energy Out is Selling Coast Short

Shutting Energy Out is Selling Coast Short

An opinion editorial by MEI President Patrick Sullivan published in the Sun Herald July 13, 2013.

Life is a series of choices. For our state and country, important energy and economic policy questions persist in the public debate. Our options are rather simple: we either produce energy where it is locally available – and every place is local to someone – or we rely totally on production from elsewhere.

A few myths commonly and effectively propagated in U.S. society today include “energy production and tourism cannot coexist” and “development is at odds with environmental stewardship.” These myths are most often spread by full-time critics or organizations offering criticism with no practical alternative solutions. Always being against everything requires little skill, and allowing these organizations to hinder progress hurts U.S. competitiveness and costs money in the form of lost revenue and jobs.

The recent action by the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to oppose energy production in state-owned waters indicates these elected leaders may not be looking at the full picture. Hopefully, their viewpoints will improve. Very real and nearby examples in our neighboring states of Alabama and Louisiana debunk these “either-or” fibs, and state law already prohibits exploration and production in the Mississippi Sound. However, there are more compelling reasons why energy production should be a major area of focus for Coast development.

Energy related jobs, on average, pay about twice the wages of the rest of the private sector with oil and natural gas industry jobs outperforming the energy sector average. Because higher household incomes correlate with a better quality of life, shouldn’t our growth strategy target sectors both demanding significant employment and, importantly, paying higher wages to employees of all skill levels? A strategy with this focus would be one based on community and family sustainability with positive ripples into other areas of the economy, like retail and service sectors.

Instead, public leaders too often buy into the propaganda that allowing energy production, like offshore production, eliminates the option to specialize in one area, like tourism. This view is shortsighted for the Gulf Coast. In today’s age of innovation and creativity, to think the economic and ecological strengths of the Gulf Coast cannot all be leveraged together is regressive and disingenuous. Seafood, manufacturing, energy production, tourism, and a unique and improving coastal ecosystem do coexist, and looking forward, wise utilization of natural resources can result in new opportunities in all areas, bringing the needed jobs and revenue for a better quality of life.

Unfortunately, comparing employment levels in the three coastal counties to pre-Katrina levels, combined employment today remains around 10,000 jobs short of the summer 2005 mark. Of note is virtually all the lack of jobs recovery is in Harrison County, while Jackson and Hancock counties have been back to pre-Katrina employment for several years now. Rather than putting all hope in the growth in one or two sectors, a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach will return (higher paying) jobs and yield more wealth for the Coast.

One of the many strengths of Mississippians as a whole is rationality and the will to reason, thus avoiding the impractical. Reliability, affordability, diversity, and availability are the key principles of a growth-based energy strategy. In its own economic interest, the Mississippi Gulf Coast should not only embrace energy opportunities, but actively seek a greater role in the energy economy. With more jobs and increased revenues, the winners will be Coast citizens and communities.