S.C. congressmen face pressure to end offshore drilling ban

WASHINGTON -- If every person has his price, for U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint of South Carolina the political price on coastal oil drilling is $4 a gallon.

Graham and DeMint no longer oppose oil exploration off the South Carolina coast -- driven, they say, by constituents' pain at the pump and the national security threat from U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The three GOP lawmakers previously backed only natural gas exploration off South Carolina, a less intrusive and less visible form of drilling without the pollution threat of an oil spill.

Graham, of Seneca, cited "the explosion of gas prices and the unlimited demand from China and India" as key reasons for his change on oil drilling.

"We have to make sure it's done in an environmentally sensitive way," Graham said. "We have to protect the shoreline and tourism. Balance is what I'm looking for. We don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. I don't want people on the coast of South Carolina to look at a bunch of oil rigs."

DeMint, of Greenville, said the state could use the tens of millions of dollars from oil and gas royalties for beach renourishment, wetlands protections and inter-coastal waterway maintenance.

"I think it's desperately needed," DeMint said. "The states would be in control of the leases and where the pipes came ashore, so South Carolina would be in the driver's seat."

The lawmakers noted that the portion of the Outer Continental Shelf off South Carolina likely holds substantial natural gas reserves but considerably less oil, according to preliminary analyses.

Most of a dozen or so proposed congressional measures to lift the 1982 federal drilling ban would require coastal states to approve oil and gas exploration, and would forbid it less than 50 miles from shore.

Led by President Bush and Sen. John McCain, the party's presumptive White House nominee, Graham and DeMint are among a growing number of Republican politicians urging an end to the drilling moratorium.

Bush's aides acknowledged that lifting the drilling ban wouldn't give drivers immediate relief.

Ann Timberlake, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said the debate over drilling in Washington is a distraction from the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation.

"It's shortsighted to think drilling is the answer," she said. "All it does is jeopardize our clean beaches just to buy us a little bit of time and prolong our addiction to cheap gas."

Such concerns haven't slowed the momentum for ending the drilling ban.

McCain reversed his decades-long opposition to offshore oil exploration.

Gov. Mark Sanford, in the running as McCain's running mate, is a GOP holdout against drilling, though his opposition appears to have softened.

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor doesn't oppose lifting the congressional ban -- as long as South Carolina gets ultimate decision-making power.

Sanford likely would oppose the state moving to permit drilling, Sawyer said, were the federal ban to be lifted.

"The governor has opposed offshore drilling and continues to do so because he's not convinced that the rewards would outweigh the risks to the tourism industry and to the ecosystem along the coast," Sawyer said.

Sanford recently wrote Bush, asking him to help protect a deepwater reef off South Carolina that could be vulnerable to oil exploration.

The General Assembly voted in February to require a study committee to report on the feasibility of natural gas drilling by Nov. 1.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a York Democrat, said the federal government already has leased to energy companies 147.2 million acres of land that aren't producing oil or natural gas.

"Before opening up vast new areas, we should know why so little of the land leased has not been explored or drilled," Spratt said. "I am open to any and all responsible solutions to the high price of gas, so long as we take care of the beaches and coastline that we value so much."

Fuel prices soar

South Carolinians are paying 37 percent more for fuel than they were paying just a year ago.

Average price (per gallon) on June 20, 2008: $3.85

Average price on June 20, 2007: $2.82