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South Carolina should harness natural gas offshore

The Strand is still grand, touts Southern Living magazine, with readers choosing Myrtle Beach as the second-ranked Best Beach Destination and Best Family Destination of 2008. Past visitor surveys reveal that affordability is one reason many visitors return each year, so ensuring our visitors are motivated to travel here is essential to our economic success.

For states like South Carolina, which lean heavily on their tourism sector for jobs, revenue and taxes, the current economic downturn is being felt harder and deeper than most. As a result, unemployment is way up, with South Carolina holding claim to the nation's third-highest jobless rate. Growing and protecting tourism is paramount to our success throughout the region.

While most of us recognize the need to grow revenue, create jobs and diversify our economy, much of the nation's focus has been on economic stimulus funds and health care reform. But one issue that we cannot afford to ignore is energy independence. Rather than ignore our growing energy crisis, we can look offshore for possible solutions to economic prosperity.

Beyond the S.C. coastline, geologists say an economic stimulus plan of significant proportions lies ready to be claimed - one that can be realized immediately and leveraged in a way to ensure long-term economic security for our region, state and nation. I'm referring to the potential 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas - the cleanest-burning conventional energy source. By leveraging this energy, South Carolina could generate high-paying jobs for the state almost immediately and start collecting royalties on revenue generated. The taxes generated could bring improvements to schools and infrastructure and an opportunity for long-term job creation when and where Horry County families need it most.

We're not in this alone. Our neighbors to the north understand the enormous potential of offshore energy exploration as well, with one recent study suggesting that North Carolina could generate millions of dollars in annual economic output if it decides to allow offshore exploration and production.

The health, welfare and continued economic viability of our community are inextricably linked to the beach, and so I understand and appreciate concerns being raised over the impact that energy exploration could have on Myrtle Beach's ecosystem. But just as technology improves daily in fields like medicine and communications, so does the technology used by energy producers. In a fundamental way, energy exploration is America's new space program - defining new frontiers and making the once impossible now possible. And as sunbathers take in our beautiful beaches, they can rest assured the important work of fueling our nation and driving our economy is being done well beyond the sightline of shore.

Instead of funneling billions in borrowed stimulus funds through bureaucratic traps, why not allow states blessed with natural resources to initiate expanded, common-sense domestic energy production, generating much-needed revenue and jobs?

For those of us who are blessed to call Grand Strand home, we like to think the Myrtle Beach area has a little more to offer than the average waterfront. And we're right. But with so many Americans unemployed right now, we're going to need more than world-class people and world-class beaches to get our economy back on track. We need energy. And the sooner we can produce it, the closer we will be to economic recovery.

The writer, who lives in Murrells Inlet, is chairman of the board of directors of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.