COLUMBIA — Three top South Carolina Republicans came together Monday to support federal legislation that would allow drilling of gas and oil off South Carolina’s coast, arguing the state’s need for jobs and income outweigh potential problems.
“There is a risk in everything you do, but the biggest risk is to do nothing,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. He said his plan would protect the environment and bar drilling in a 10-mile buffer zone off the coast.
The governor and the S.C. Legislature would determine whether oil and gas exploration could occur within the next 10-to-50 mile stretch, while all areas 50 to 100 miles offshore would be open to drilling leases, Graham said.
Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan joined Graham at a news conference, where all said they hope the legislation in the U.S. Senate would lead the nation to energy independence and bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue to state and federal coffers. Graham was introducing it in the Senate on Monday.
“Offshore drilling is where we need to be,” Haley said. “This will bring so many more jobs.”
The state’s jobless rate was 8.8 percent in April. Haley said those who might protest such drilling have valid concerns, but, she added, “We’re not compromising tourism to do this.”
Duncan said he plans to introduce similar legislation in the House. “This legislation will help our state lead the way in energy innovation,” said the congressman from Laurens.
Graham faulted President Obama’s administration for standing in the way of oil and gas exploration, and said the situation could change with the November elections.
“If Gov. (Mitt) Romney becomes President Romney, this will happen,” Graham said.
Virginia was slated to be the first state on the East Coast to offer oil and gas drilling, but that plan was shelved by the Obama administration last year after the massive 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In recent weeks, the federal government has held hearings along the Atlantic Coast to gather opinions and discuss the potential environmental impact of offshore drilling.
The Palmetto Agribusiness Council released a study done by a local consulting firm which said an offshore drilling industry could spawn 7,500 jobs by 2030 and about $87.5 million annually in taxes.
South Carolina tourism is a $15 billion industry, and the latest figures for 2010 showed that 1 in 10 jobs, or more than 170,000, are tied to tourism. The industry also produces about $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.
Environmental groups have argued that alternative fuel choices are preferable to offshore drilling.
Frank Knapp, Jr., president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and vice chairman of the American Sustainable Business Council, said in a statement released Monday that a comprehensive energy plan would be preferable to seeking fossil fuels offshore.
“It is important for our elected officials not to settle for a few jobs for South Carolina associated with drilling, digging or piping when thousands of good jobs are waiting to be created in the areas of wind, solar and bio fuels,” Knapp said.