WASHINGTON — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour came to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday with a message: last summer's Gulf of Mexico oil spill was an economic — not an environmental — disaster, and he wants lawmakers to help shore up the region's hard-hit fishing, tourism and energy sectors.
Barbour asked Congress to direct funds collected from Clean Water Act fines to the five Gulf states: Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
Barbour testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the impact of last year's BP oil spill. The hearing was about the impact of the Obama administration's offshore oil drilling moratorium.
The panel's Republicans and Democrats sparred over a report produced by the GOP majority critical of the Obama administration's handling of the oil spill. The committee's ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, complaining that Democrats had been shut out of the writing of the report.
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Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that Democrats could comment before the findings are published as a committee report.
The GOP version, distributed to the press, was critical of all aspects of the administration's response to the spill, including ongoing concerns that "the BP Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is stripping victims of their rights."
Asked about BP's compensation fund by Issa, which is being administered by BP agent Kenneth Feinberg, Barbour said, "I think they're trying to do a good job. It's sure better than having to litigate all this."
But Barbour spent more time talking about the BP oil spill's impact on commercial and recreational fishing and blaming the media for sensationalizing the spill's impact on the beaches and environment of the Magnolia State.
"For us, this turned out to be primarily an economic disaster," said Barbour, who noted that the spill was 108 miles from Gulfport. "It may develop that it's ecologically dangerous, but thus far — and we're different from Louisiana — it has been very manageable."
The media coverage of the BP spill, said Barbour, gave the impression that "the whole Gulf Coast was covered in oil."
"Our tourism industry was clobbered," he said, adding that though President Barack Obama's visit to the coast and to neighboring states helped, it was "one news day."
Barbour said the seafood industry had "huge losses" and "the processors were slammed." He said that lawmakers should move on legislation to return the Clean Water Act fines to the states hit by the oil spill.
Issa was critical of the drilling moratorium, which was lifted in October, and stressed that the administration has been slow in approving permits.
"The moratorium hurt us financially," Barbour said. "More importantly, it hurt the country."
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