U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has slipped a provision into a military spending bill that would grant his state authority to sell or lease mineral rights in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, an offshore national park. The natural gas industry thinks the state could reap $200 million annually from royalties and taxes, while, according to one scientist, "The likelihood of a toxic spill is minimal." Critics, on the other hand, worry about unsightly offshore drilling platforms or the possibility that massive gas extraction could cause the islands to sink (which is what is happening to Louisiana wetlands). While they might not be submerged, they would be much more vulnerable to storm "wash-over," where waves sweep completely across the islands.

The state legislature eased the way for drilling by moving authority over the islands from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which opposed drilling, to the Mississippi Development Authority. A 1996 proposal to drill for natural gas off Horn Island had met with strong public disapproval on the Gulf Coast, so this bill moved public hearings from the coast to the state capital, Jackson, making it harder for the people affected to make their voices heard. Even so, local business owners and environmentalists are holding protests in Gulfport.

Of course, it turns out that the politicians who pushed this bill had reaped millions in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the past several years, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald:

Oil and gas interests' campaign contributions to state leaders jumped from $345,000 in the 1999 elections to $620,000 in the 2004 elections. Gov. Haley Barbour received more than $320,000 in donations from oil and gas; Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, $93,000.

Oil and gas contributed relatively large sums to many state lawmakers' campaigns, including many in the South Mississippi delegation, the vast majority of whom voted in favor of last year's changes in state law on oil and gas leases.

From 1999 to 2004, oil and gas businesses donated more than $44,000 to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., making the industry his eighth top contributor; and $85,000 to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., his sixth top. U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., from '03-'04, received $7,500 from oil and gas, his 14th largest industry contributor.