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Rigs take on new meaning after disaster

Alabama is no stranger to oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. For the better part of three decades, there have been drilling rigs just off Alabama’s coast, visible from our most pristine beaches.

Our state agreed to the drilling in our territorial waters because of the energy they provide and the revenue it would generate for Alabama. The Alabama Trust Fund, a $2.7 billion state savings account for the royalties from these offshore wells, generates much needed revenue from interest payments.

Those funds are used for things like the prison system, public health programs and child protection services.

The Alabama Trust Fund has been an important resource to keep our taxes the lowest in the nation, and it now is poised to be a major economic engine for our state if voters approve a plan to use part of the fund for road and infrastructure projects. This past legislative session, a constitutional amendment was approved to let people vote on whether they want to use $100 million a year for a decade from the trust fund.

Such investment will help us attract new industry and make important repairs on existing roads and bridges.

There is little doubt about the importance of the offshore oil and gas industry for our state. Unlike Florida, which banned offshore drilling, we decided that it was best to tap those natural resources in the underwater fields.

Yet, for folks walking on the white sands of the Alabama coast, the rigs seen off in the distance take on new meaning with the disaster that is unfolding many miles over the horizon.

There is no doubt that the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing massive oil spill in Louisiana is an unprecedented environmental disaster for the Gulf and our nation. The numbers of barrels of crude coming into those waters are almost too staggering to understand.

That well goes much deeper into the Gulf than those you would see from our coastline, and that is why weeks later the spill is still out of control. Such depths make work extremely difficult, and BP is still working on a plan to control the problems occurring almost a mile under water.

After looking like it was going to slam right into Alabama’s beaches, in recent days, the oil slick has been drifting westward and away from the state’s coastline. As we wait to see what will happen, damage to the state’s coastal economy has already been done.

As the summer tourism season starts up, there has been a drop in the numbers for rental agencies in Baldwin and Mobile Counties.  Some are reporting cancellations on as much as 70 percent of their bookings for condominiums and houses.

There are fewer people going to our coast so far, and that has a negative economic impact for those counties and the state as a whole. Tourism is a huge portion of the state economy.

There are other industries that rely on a clean Gulf as well.

Alabama’s important and vibrant seafood industry is in peril. The Alabama state docks in Mobile, growing in cargo volume after state investment and upgrades, will be affected if ships must be cleaned before entering the bay.

State officials have taken many preemptive precautions to keep the spill off our beaches and sensitive coastlines. Miles of booms and pompoms have been dispatched to protect the beaches.

They are monitoring all aspects of the spill to make sure public health is maintained for tourism, the fisheries, and shipping.  Legislators and state leaders will also visit the area this week for a fact-finding mission on what else can be done.

As the spill drifts away from Alabama, there is a little hope our state could be spared the worst. No matter the final direction and extent of the spill, BP must be held accountable for every dollar lost because of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

We have sensibly developed our own offshore resources, and we will fight to make sure others who have not will pay for their mistakes.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.