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Steve Mullen: Mississippi’s energy future


Steve Mullen



When one thinks of energy-producing states, Texas, Alaska and California come to mind, for their oil and gas. 


Or Louisiana and Oklahoma. Or West Virginia and Kentucky, for their coal. 


But Mississippi? 


Yes, we have some oil, gas and coal, but not like these guys. 


Still, Mississippi has a role to play in the nation''s energy future, in the growing realm of alternative energy sources. And our role is growing. 




Pickens touts energy plan 


Last week, Biloxi hosted a Southern Growth Policies Board energy summit, placing the state at Ground Zero in the debate over energy policy. Five southern governors were in attendance, including Gov. Haley Barbour, the group''s chairman. 


Speaking at this meeting was T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who, over the past year, has been pushing a plan that he says will lessen the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. 


Pickens'' plan can be summed up this way: Run more electricity on wind and solar, and more cars on natural gas. In the meantime, drill for more oil in the U.S. 


Luckily, Pickens is there to help. He''s heavily invested in oil and natural gas, and is a partner in a new $12 billion wind farm being constructed in Texas. 


Still, Boone, who is in his 80s, says his energy plan isn''t about personal gain -- it''s about leaving a solid energy future for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Anyway, what''s wrong with profit?) 


Boone is good for headlines, and several were generated out of Mississippi last week with his presence at the conference. 




Our state''s assets 


Mississippi isn''t a good place for wind power. And while we have oil and natural gas (including in our area), there aren''t enough reserves to make the kind of dent that states like Texas and California do. 


And that''s fine, because while we''re not a big player in fossil fuels, if we''re smart, we can be a major player in renewable and alternative energy. That is where the future is, and where the jobs are. 


We have timber and farmland. Farmland can grow crops for biofuels, like ethanol or biodiesel. Critics of biofuels point out that devoting farmland to fuel takes away land that is growing food crops. Indeed, that''s a concern -- as is the process to make these fuels. Biofuel plants are stinky, and need tons of energy to make their "green" fuels, negating the benefits. Still, as technologies improve, Mississippi could play a role here. 


We have tons of timber, which could be devoted to renewable fuel. A new plant in Wiggins, open just since last week, is doing just that. The plant, Piney Woods Pellets, converts wood-product waste into wood pellets. The pellets are a cheap fuel source for heating homes, cheaper than oil or gas. 


Mississippi has rivers, including a sizable one on our western border. We''re very close to technologies that could put the Mississippi River to use generating power. A Massachusetts-based company, Free Flow Power, is developing underwater turbines that could be placed at points along the river bed from St. Louis down to New Orleans. The plan is still untested and years away, but could translate into thousands of jobs. 




Local natural gas 


Lowndes, Clay and Monroe counties have natural gas deposits, and it''s not a stretch to think that an increase in demand for gas, for gas-powered vehicles or power, could lead to more speculation or jobs here. 


As our fields dry up, our proximity to gas pipelines makes us a good spot for natural gas storage. We''re lucky to be at the intersection of a couple of major gas lines, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline and the Southern Natural Gas pipeline. Better to have producing wells, but storage basins ensure we remain a viable energy player into the future. 


Things are happening on this front. The Caledonia Gas Storage Field, which can store 11.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas, recently expanded its capacity to 16.9 billion cubic feet.  


Another massive storage field is expected to open next year. Southeast Gas Storage, a subsidiary of gas giant El Paso Corp., is clearing hurdles to open its Black Warrior Storage Project, which will store up to 24.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In recent weeks it cleared state permitting to store gas in the Buttahatchie River Field, which runs through Monroe and Lowndes counties.  


These underground fields may still produce a little gas, but not at a volume that makes them viable producers. So energy companies come in, and use them as storage tanks, ensuring a steady supply of gas for whomever their customers may be.  


Those customers could include new power plants in the area. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Valley Authority shelved plans to build a combustion turbine plant in Caledonia, which would have been a boon for the county. Still, as energy needs continue to increase, I wouldn''t count us out for more development down the line, especially as the economy improves. 




A bright future? 


So we have things going on, locally and statewide. In recent days Barbour formed the Mississippi Energy Policy Institute, which will "promote policies supporting long-term economic growth for the state through reliable and affordable energy," according to the governor''s office, and develop a long-term strategy for developing the state''s energy resources. 


Also benefiting from this will be Mississippi State, and the state''s other research universities, which are already researching alternative energy. 


As a Republican, and a national leader of the party (and quite possibly a presidential contender himself), Barbour is an outspoken opponent of President Obama''s energy policies, which call for alternative sources of energy. He''s also a steward of Mississippi''s economy. He knows that renewable and alternative energy aren''t simply wise for our future, as Pickens might say -- they''re also job-creators.  


We''re behind. Other states off to a good start. Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, are the leaders in the pace of job creation in alternative energy, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released last week.  


But we can catch up, and appear to be serious about doing so. Here''s hoping we build on all this momentum, and Mississippi emerges as a bright, progressive leader in the nation''s energy future.


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.


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