The biggest problem facing Mississippi in the wake of a massive oil spill in the Gulf isn't tarred beaches or ecological waste, the state's governor Haley Barbour said on Sunday. It's the national press corps, which, he asserted, is inflating the disaster's current impact and, as a result, decimating the state's tourism industry.
In an appearance on Fox News Sunday, the Mississippi Republican veered as close as any elected politician could to insisting that the biggest oil spill in the history of this country had been overblown -- at least when it comes to his state.
"The truth is," he said, "we have had virtually no oil. If you were on the Mississippi Gulf coast anytime in the last 48 days you didn't see any oil at all. We have had a few tar balls but we have had tar balls every year, as a natural product of the Gulf of Mexico. 250,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico through the floor every year. So, tar balls are no big deal. In fact, I read that Pensacola or the Florida beaches when they have tar balls yesterday didn't even close. They just sent people out to pick them up and throw them in the bag."
"The biggest negative impact for us has been the news coverage," Barbour added. "There has been no distinction between Grand Isle and Venice and all the places in Louisiana that we feel so terrible for that have had oil washing up on them. But to the average viewer [of] this show thinks that the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil. And of course, it's very, very bad for our tourist season. That is the real economic damage. Our first closure of fisheries in Mississippi waters came just earlier this week after about 45 days. So it may be hard for the viewer to understand, but the worst thing for us has been how our tourist season has been hurt by the misperception of what is going on down here. The Mississippi gulf coast is beautiful. As I tell people, the coast is clear. Come on down!"
Barbour has been one of the most defiant skeptics about the impact of the crisis in the Gulf, comparing the spill, early on, to the sheen commonly found around ski boats. Perhaps it's because Mississippi, so far, has yet to feel the spill's direct affects. The first signs of oil on the state's shores came four days ago. Barbour, meanwhile, said that there have been only two cases of oil washing up on shore.
And yet, his lack of caution or concern is notable. On Sunday, Barbour joined a growing chorus of Republican lawmakers to criticize the president for putting a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. An investigation as to what went wrong with the BP well may not be completed. But the likelihood of another accident was statistically small, he stressed. And by the time the six-month suspension of drilling had ended, companies will have gone looking for oil off of different coastlines.
"They'll be in West Africa, Indonesia, in China, and drilling oil wells elsewhere in the world," said Barbour. "And the loss of production that we're going to suffer will make us even more dependent on the Middle East, on Venezuela, on people that aren't our friends. let me tell you one other little thing environmentalists ought to think about. The ten worst oil spills in American history, seven of them were from ships."
As for the job that the administration was doing in handling the spill, Barbour insisted that he wanted to remain above the partisan fray. After, all, he added (with a wink and a nod) what kind of politician would he be to get in the way of another's self-destruction?
"The American people are making up their minds pretty clearly about what they think of the administration's performance in this disaster," said Barbour. "And I'll let it stand at that. You know, Napoleon said never interfere with the enemy while he's in the process of destroying himself."
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