With gas prices nationwide jumping nearly a nickel over the weekend, GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum focused on domestic drilling at an energy summit in Biloxi on Monday before today's primary vote in Mississippi.
The two, along with Gov. Phil Bryant, took turns bashing President Obama and his energy policy and saying they want to drill to lower prices and bring energy independence. As they spoke, a group from the 12 Miles South Coalition of Coast environmental and business leaders against offshore drilling in Mississippi protested with placards and speeches on the beach across U.S. 90 from the summit at the Coliseum.
Gingrich said Obama and his energy advisors have an "anti-energy policy" and are "in cloud cuckooland." He said Obama suffers from a "cognitive dissonance" mental disorder over energy.
Santorum said Obama "has a two-letter energy policy -- N.O." He called Obama and his energy advisors "radical environmentalists."
Both said voters today should elect a GOP nominee who can properly debate Obama on energy matters, and who will help tap domestic reserves of oil and gas and drive prices down.
Santorum said he's "stood tall" on such issues, while his opponents have shifted with political winds over the years.
"We need someone who didn't buy into that environmental hoax of man-made global warming," Santorum said. "I opposed any cap-and-trade, unlike other people in this race who sat on couches with (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) or crowed when they were governor of Massachusetts about imposing the first carbon tax. And warning against the dangers of carbon dioxide, calling it a toxin. Tell that to a plant. We had rational individuals on our side jumping onboard, including (Gingrich and Romney). I didn't change as the climate changed.
"Now the climate has changed back and everybody's for drilling. When times were tough, they were not and I was."
Gingrich focused on Obama without directly attacking his GOP opponents.
"You cannot describe liberalism's energy policy to most Americans without guaranteeing defeat," Gingrich said. "The president's trapped."
Gingrich, as he has at other Mississippi stops, chided Obama for recent comments about developing algae into usable engergy. He's also continuing his promise to bring gas down to $2.50 a gallon, or less, if he's elected.
"I've tried to look offshore for the algae rigs, and for the algae pumps at the gas station," Gingrich said. "... The left-wing environmental movement hates oil."
The two candidates spoke at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit, sponsored in part by the Mississippi Energy Policy Institute and the national Consumer Energy Alliance. MEPI was created in 2009, a spinoff of then-Gov. Haley Barbour's Momentum Mississippi planning initiative. MEPI has recently led the charge to promote offshore drilling in Mississippi water.
While candidate Mitt Romney didn't attend the summit, he issued a statement about Obama and drilling: "Mr. President, you're not doing the job to help us finally get gasoline prices down. That's what I am hearing. Let me tell you, my policy is just the opposite. Open up our energy resources. Start drilling and pumping out that oil -- and that natural gas, by the way -- so we can be energy secure."
At least several hundred people attended the summit at the Coast Coliseum Convention Center. Most left after Bryant and the candidates spoke, but other state business and political leaders, including U.S. Reps. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, Joe Barton of Texas and Trent Franks of Arizona spoke later.
About 40 or 50 members of the 12 Miles South Coalition opposed to drilling in state waters stood in misting rain along the beach highway as the summit was gearing up Monday morning.
"We're not opposed to drilling per se," said Louis Skrmetta, a 12 Miles member and owner of the Ship Island Excursion tourist ferry. "We just ask that you keep it 12 miles south of the barrier islands. We have a national park out there. I don't think the people of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, would appreciate this activity in the Grand Tetons."
Louie Miller, a 12 Miles member and head of the state Sierra Club, said: "Our national park is worthy of not being drilled. Would people want drilling at Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains or in Yellowstone? Of course not."
People waved signs that included: "No Drilling Stop Killing Tourism," and "Prices are low -- leave it in reserve," and "Repubs destroy MS Coast for 'Big Oil.'"
Gov. Bryant spoke before the candidates at the summit. His message sounded similar to theirs.
"Energy is the economy," Bryant said and criticized the administration's reliance on "a battery of some other type of cosmic solution."
"I would suspect the president hasn't had to pay for a gallon of gas for a long time," Bryant said. "... My dad was a diesel mechanic. I learned early on, everything we eat or consume in America was once in the back of a diesel truck."
Bryant said drilling in state water can be done without hurting tourism or the environment.
"There are people who are just afraid you're going to destroy the planet," Bryant said. "Those of us who love the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who fish in these waters and enjoy those beautiful beaches will fight you over that. We don't want one tin can or piece of paper left out there. We are going to protect that Coast because we love it. It's in our veins, in our souls. The idea that we would deliberately harm it is out of touch with reality. That has never occurred and it will never occur ... We can (drill) where it doesn't disrupt the view of tourists."
Monday's event drew people from across the state, for different reasons.
"I'm in 100-percent agreement with them (on domestic drilling)," said Scott Hillman, a grocery supervisor from Hattiesburg. "The country needs it."
But Will Bedwell of Hattiesburg, an Ole Miss student on spring break, came down to join the protest on the beach.
"We have a group at Ole Miss called Campus for Clean Energy," Bedwell said.
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