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Mississippi plans changes to leasing of state-owned mineral rights

The Mississippi Development Authority will hold a hearing Friday on new rules for the leasing of state-owned mineral rights.

The Sierra Club claimed the regulations could open state parks and wildlife refuges to oil and natural gas drilling.

“This MDA proposal would jeopardize the very intent of what state parks were set aside to provide the public: a sanctuary from the very industrial activity being proposed,” said Mississippi Sierra Club director Louie Miller.

MDA and state park officials said that is not so.

Regulations are merely being updated for a 40-year-old program that already allows leasing out the rights to state-owned minerals on public properties, said John Tindall, land coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks land coordinator John Tindall.

“It’s not loosening them. It’s just establishing their own rules.” Tindall said.

Tindall said the Legislature transferred the mineral lease program from the state Department of Environmental Quality to MDA in 2004.

In the past 20 years, he said, there have only been three wells drilled on MDWFP-managed land, in Clarke and Marion counties. He said currently there are no active oil or natural gas exploration activities.

MDA mineral-leasing geologist Jack Moody said the agency is cooperating with wildlife and environmental agencies to deal with “any sensitivities that might exist” and “not allow companies to be raping the countryside.”

Moody told The Commercial Dispatch newspaper of Columbus that he expects drilling limits that, for example, would ensure wells are out of plain public view at parks and be restricted from operating during certain wildlife seasons.

Mississippi law provides that oil and natural gas companies allowed to drill on state-owned wildlife management areas and lakes will be subject to MDWFP regulations.

“They’re basically in control of the activities on their properties,” Moody said.

Miller, however, said he doesn’t want the new regulations to encourage more drilling and spoil the state’s recreational and wildlife refuges.

“Everyone should be asking: ‘Will my favorite state park or hunting spot look the same next year?’” he said.

In letting MDA offer for public bid the rights to exploit state-owned land for potential oil or natural gas, state law says MDA must follow state conservation policies.

“I think common sense will prevail,” said Moody.

Moody said he didn’t know how much public land for which Mississippi owns the mineral rights to lease out, but “it’s a pretty small program.”

The state does own surface land with underground minerals that belong to private entities free to extract the oil and gas without a state lease.