Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was welcomed Tuesday morning at the Mobile Chamber of Commerce’s Forum Alabama, sponsored by the Alabama State Port Authority.
At the Battle House Hotel in front of more than 400 people enjoying breakfast, Bentley addressed the state’s success this past year. He also felt some pressure from the Tar Sands Oil Mobile Coalition to give a direct answer on whether he supports or rejects an oil pipeline through the county’s watershed.
Members of the coalition and locals gathered on Royal Street across from the Battle House Hotel with signs protesting the Plains Southcap oil pipeline that is scheduled to be built under the Big Creek Lake watershed, Mobile’s primary source of drinking water. That pipeline, however, is not scheduled to handle tar sands. According to the company it will pipe crude oil from the Eight Mile area to the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula.
Another proposed pipeline, by ARC Terminals, will run beneath Mobile River, connecting storage facilities on both banks. It appears possible that pipeline might be able to handle the thick Canadian tar sands, although no one has said definitively that is going to happen.
Valerie Longa, a Tar Sands member, asked Bentley, “Do you plan to honor the decision made by our local government? If not, with all the risks associated and accidents that have occurred with projects like this, how will you be able to insure the future for the boaters and citizens of Mobile as well as our health and safety?”
“This is an issue that obviously all of us are concerned about. I think that we can do this together. I think we have to be careful as we put projects in certain parts of our watersheds, I understand that’s the concern and so we need to be very careful there. One of the other things we need to do, we really need more openness as far as what is going on. This was not even brought to my attention until July 3 by a TV reporter down here. It did not rise to our level, on the state level, because we were not really involved with it,” Bentley responded.
Bentley said there are billions of barrels of oil in north Alabama that we have to use.
“We have to harvest that in an environmentally friendly way so that we can take advantage of that oil,” he said. “So we are going to do that, and we are going to do that the right way. We have to be reasonable, we have to work together.”
“We all care about our environment, but we also have to be energy efficient in this country, and we are going to be. I’m willing to do this and I’m willing to be environmentally friendly but also make sure that our companies can operate,” he added.
Another supporter of Tar Sands took issue with Bentley’s response.
“I was confused by the wording you said, by we have to work together and stuff. Her question was will you honor the banning of the pipeline and I just wanted to clear that up,” the protester said.
“I’m confused by what you just said,” Bentley retorted. “If the county commission has passed something, this is a county commission issue. In any project like this, I want to see more openness and transparency so we have more input from everybody. Truly, there are ways that you can protect the watershed, and we just have to work together. Did I answer your question? No. But I’m not too sure I totally understood the question.
The governor went on to explain his idea of a balance between business and the environment.
“All I’m saying is that we must be environmentally friendly and we must protect our environment. Now what you may think is protecting the environment might not be what I think, but we must at least talk about it. But we also are not going to shut down businesses in this state,” Bentley firmly said. “I do believe you can do them both, and that’s what we need to do.”
Before the protestors pressured Bentley, the governor seemed to put the pressure on Alabamians to be truthful in reporting BP claims.
“As people, we ought to always do what’s right, always tell the truth. And if you lost money on BP on the oil spill, then you need to be compensated. If you didn’t, you should not be compensated,” Bentley said.
He described BP to be moving at a “snail’s pace” at the present, and says there has been an attitude change in the oil company. “I don’t want to see people here or in north Alabama make fraudulent claims based on greed. Because that hurts us, it hurts everybody,” Bentley said.
“It’s hurting us up in Decatur because right now BP is looking and having second thoughts about expanding their BP plant up in Decatur because they’re upset about some of these fraudulent claims that may or may not be fraudulent. I’m just saying we need to make sure that they are not.”
Bentley said BP has owned up to the negligence that took place during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and emphasized the company has put a lot of money into the beaches in Alabama and other Southern states.
Throughout the forum Bentley lauded the success Alabama has seen so far, and what we can expect for 2014.
“All around the state, anecdotally, we see Alabama has improved. Things have picked up over the last few months, especially over this last year,” Bentley said.
He later mentioned the decrease in the unemployment rate that has fallen from 9.3 percent when he took office to 6.3 percent currently.
“We are the lowest of any Southeastern Conference state,” Bentley said.
He explained how statistically there have been year-to-year improvements financially. Income taxes, Bentley said, are up approximately 10 percent and sales taxes are up 3 to 4 percent.
Also, education money will be more this year than last year, according to Bentley. However, the general fund has remained stagnant.
“When the economy is good, education is generally good as well. Our general fund, unfortunately, is about like it’s always been,” he said.
He encouraged those across the state to vote for the Market Fairness Bill in Congress. Bentley explained that it is unfair for local stores to be at a 10 percent disadvantage from online sales, and this bill would fix the issue.
The Market Fairness Bill, if passed, would also put about $150 million into the general fund, which supports everything other than education.
Bentley reminisced about the Paris Air Show and announced a new plant in Dothan just opened called Commercial Jets that moved from another state.
“We are getting a lot of companies that are moving from other states to Alabama. We can do that because we continue to have this good environment in the state,” Bentley said.
He then discussed the College and Career Readiness Taskforce.
“Industry is now working with education so that we can determine exactly what the needs are,” Bentley said. He also highlighted the importance of steel workers to help recruit industries into the state.
Bentley said infrastructure is vital to economic development in the state, and the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation Improvement Program (ATRIP) will help fix many roads and bridges in our area.
“We can’t think about building new roads and bridges in the state until we take care of the ones we have,” he said. “We now have announced 700 projects across the state of Alabama. Mobile County has the highest of all the counties in the state, at $50 million that’s going to come into this county to repair bridges and repair roads.”
Bentley described the project as “the largest road repair and bridge repair program that has ever occurred in the state of Alabama,” with $1 billion to be dispersed across the state.
He also boasted, “One of the things in this area that we have accomplished, is we have passed legislation that six governors have tried to get passed. We passed legislation that we can use some of the early restoration money. We are going to build, over in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, a lodging and convention center. That’s going to be major for this part of the state.”
After the forum Bentley planned to briefly visit Austal then make his way to Bibb County. The governor says he visits different counties often to listen and see what the problems are in that area.
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