S.C. lawmakers push for drilling

If every person has his price, for Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson, the political price on coastal oil drilling is $4 a gallon.

Graham, DeMint and Wilson 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.

“I care about the environment,” Wilson, a Lexington, S.C., Republican, said. “I care about our hospitality industry. Oil on our beaches would be catastrophic. But when oil reached $130 a barrel, that certainly got my attention.”

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, S.C., 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, from Greenville, S.C., 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.

In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole continues to oppose offshore oil exploration off her state's coast. Fellow GOP Sen. Richard Burr supports it.

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, DeMint and Wilson are among a growing number of Republican politicians urging an end to the drilling moratorium.

“If congressional leaders leave for the Fourth of July recess without taking action, they will need to explain why $4 a gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act,” Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.

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

“If you're looking for any measure that would significantly reduce gasoline prices over a period of weeks or months, those tools just don't exist,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Friday.

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. Bush weighed lifting the executive order his father issued against it.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a possible McCain running mate, had a change of heart as well.

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, also in the running as McCain's VP choice, 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 would likely 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.