COLUMBIA -- South Carolinians overwhelmingly back more drilling off the U.S. coast, despite a belief that any oil found won't affect the price of gas for a half-dozen years.
That's one of the findings of a poll of likely voters conducted Sept. 28 through Oct. 19 for Winthrop University and ETV.
The views of South Carolinians 73.1 percent of whom back drilling in coastal areas now off-limits to oil exploration match those found in Virginia, where 70.2 percent favor more drilling, and in North Carolina, where 67.9 percent want to see the country drill more.
"The results of the Winthrop/ETV poll are not surprising to me," said U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., who raised some eyebrows in his Charleston-area district two years ago when he argued for drilling off the South Carolina coast. "Our dependence on foreign sources of energy must stop."
National polls have shown a large majority of Americans support increased drilling. Support for drilling drops sharply, however, when Americans are asked if they want pristine areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to be tapped for oil.
And the Winthrop/ETV poll, like the national polls that preceded it, does not ask residents of a particular state if they would back drilling off the coast of the state where they live.
On the presidential campaign trail, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have argued on behalf of more drilling to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
But the candidates' overall views on energy have different areas of focus.
Obama has called for oil companies to drill more in the vast areas they already have under lease.
On the campaign stump, McCain puts no such qualifier on his support for more drilling.
Early in the campaign, he used a speech in California to call for more drilling off that state's coast, enraging environmental activists there.
The Golden State was always thought to be Obama territory in this campaign, and McCain's support for more drilling makes it difficult for him to compete.
California experienced an ecological disaster in 1969, when 200,000 gallons of oil spilled off the coast near Santa Barbara. That spill outraged residents and led to strong measures to protect the state's environment.
But high gas prices earlier this year, combined with the knowledge that oil revenue enriches regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Iran that are not friendly toward the United States, has led to national calls for increased drilling.
"Drill, baby, drill!" is a mantra at some McCain rallies.
Many of those who support increasing drilling do so in part because they see it as providing a double benefit- creating jobs while at the same time reducing the nation's reliance on foreign oil.
But Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, disagrees with that assessment.
"No one is arguing we shouldn't be looking for job-creation opportunities," Beach said. "But drilling off the Southeast coast, that's not part of it. There's just not enough oil. In a way, it's just not worth arguing about."
Beach, using figures from the U.S. government, said there is, at most, 14 million barrels of oil off the South Carolina coast.
Assuming every drop is extracted, that would be enough to meet the nation's energy needs "for 17 hours," Beach said.
"We would probably be better off paying people to dig holes and fill them back up," Beach said.
Beach also disputed the contention that drilling would provide relief at the gas pump any time soon.
While South Carolinians told pollsters they thought they could see some relief through increased drilling in about six years, Beach said an optimistic estimate is 10 years, with 15 to 17 years more likely, given the work that would be have to be done to build refineries and pipelines.
The General Assembly could, if it was serious about reducing oil consumption, take immediate steps to accomplish that goal, Beach said.
Those steps include:
nReducing speed limits
nRaising fuel-efficiency standards of cars
nExpanding the state tax credit for fuel-efficient cars.
While some oppose more drilling off the Southeast coast because of environmental concerns, others worry it could harm South Carolina's tourism industry.
That industry is a giant source of revenue in South Carolina.
More than 10 percent of employment in the state is tied to tourism, according to figures from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. State and local governments get $1.1 billion each year in taxes generated by tourism, department figures show.
"I would not favor this approach if I thought it would endanger our tourism economy," said Brown, who backs exploration of natural gas. "The technologies available today allow for exploration without excessive drilling, and it won't be a visual impairment from the coast."