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Oil spill doesn't change local legislators' opinions

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not changed Grand Strand legislators' opinions on offshore drilling, but it has raised red flags about safety for some of them.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the sponsors of a Senate bill to address energy and climate change, supports the expansion of offshore drilling because it is essential for the U.S. to become energy independent, he said in a statement.

The oil spill hurts the energy bill's chances because some senators are now vowing not to vote for a bill that includes the expansion of offshore drilling, Graham said.

"I remain committed to safely expanding offshore drilling because I know oil will be part of our nation's energy plan for years to come," he said. "Every barrel we can find in the United States is one less we have to import from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And today, some of the dollars we spend on imported oil find their way into the hands of terrorists who wish to harm our nation."

Environmentalists have praised Graham for addressing the issue of climate change but local conservation groups who met last week are concerned about his position on oil drilling. The S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina are gathering signatures on a letter urging Graham to rethink the drilling proposal in the bill.

"As a senator from a coastal state, and in light of the historic oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, I think it makes sense to find out what happened, enact safety measures to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future and then build consensus for the expanded offshore drilling our nation needs," Graham said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is opposed to offshore drilling and said in a statement the spill should be seen as a warning.

"I believe the oil spill in the Gulf Coast is a wake-up call. South Carolina's No. 1 industry is tourism, and if we succumb to the lure of offshore drilling, our coastline could see the same scenario play out here," he said.

Clyburn acknowledged that the country must reduce its dependence on foreign oil, but said it must also protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions.

"That's why I support a clean energy plan for the future that diversifies our energy investments in a smorgasbord of alternative energy sources," he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., did not return calls requesting comment, but has supported offshore drilling in the past.

North Carolina Senate leader Marc Basnight, whose district includes a swath of northern coastline heavily reliant on tourism and fishing - and clean water - said the spill was a reminder of the need to shift to greener sources of energy.

"I'd much rather look out on an ocean populated by wind turbines than oil rigs," he said. "Who wouldn't?"

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue was once opposed to drilling, but in recent months has said that it appears inevitable. She said that if North Carolina must endure the risks, it should be compensated.

U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., said that while it was a tragic incident, the oil spill does not mean the industry as a whole is unsafe.

"I still support offshore drilling because I believe it is vital for our economy and our national security," he said in a statement. "However, this is not to say that this unfortunate event should be ignored. We can learn from this incident and ultimately employ even safer drilling practices."

With 70 percent of the nation's energy currently imported, energy independence has never been a more important issue, Brown said.

Brown, whose term ends this year, is not running for re-election and 12 candidates are vying for his seat. Most expressed support for offshore drilling.

Carroll Campbell III, a Republican, said that the oil spill has not changed his support for offshore drilling. The accident must be studied, but it shouldn't be used by special interest groups to advance their agenda.

"We've got to make sure that we can learn from this, that we can assure ourselves that this never happens again," he said. "I support energy independence. I don't like this country having to be dependent on foreign nations."

Safety is paramount if there is going to be drilling off the S.C. coast, especially because of the state's reliance on the tourism industry, said Ken Glasson, another Republican.

He said he supports offshore drilling and despite the disaster, good technology exists.

"It has raised some concern that we protect our environment and that cannot be understated," Glasson said. "However, that has not changed my opinion on offshore drilling."

Breaking from her Republican colleagues, Katherine Jenerette said that the risks of drilling are just too high in an area dependent on tourism.

"Rule No. 1 for me is oil spills and tourism doesn't mix," she said in a statement. "The consequences of an offshore drilling mistake or oil spill would be like having a Hurricane Hugo hit the coastline every day for two or three years straight. I don't care who says they are going to pay for the cleanup, I don't want to risk that stuff on our beaches."

She said now is not the time to take on the risk of drilling offshore until all the facts are available about the impacts of the Gulf disaster. Jenerette said she doesn't have any proof that drilling off the S.C. coast will benefit the state, its businesses or make the country energy independent.

"If I thought that drilling off the South Carolina coast would lower the cost of energy for the average Carolina citizen filling up their car to go to work or bring more tourists to the Grand Strand and Charleston, I'd be singing a three-word song, 'drill-baby-drill,' but, as long as I'm the congressman from coastal Carolina I have to say, 'Please do your drilling in someone else's backyard,'" she said.

Republican attorney Larry Kobrovsky said he believes in an energy policy that looks at all of the country's natural resources, and said there is a need to exploit offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

"I think energy independence is a national priority as a matter of national and economic security," Kobrovsky said. "Energy independence is vital, but it needs to be done safely."

With fishing a major industry off the S.C. coast, it is important to be careful about the impacts of drilling to both that industry and the tourism industry, he said.

Republican businessman Mark Lutz said it is important to find out what exactly went wrong and not just jump to add new regulations.

"From a regulatory standpoint, we need to make sure we don't over regulate ourselves [to] where we come to a standstill," he said.

The safety record of the oil industry has been excellent and this disaster should not stop offshore drilling. South Carolina has huge economic problems and drilling offshore would create jobs and growth, he said.

"In the big scheme of things we have to press ahead," Lutz said. "We have to address disasters like this but not let them slow us down."

S.C. Rep. Tim Scott, also a Republican, said the Gulf Coast spill has not weakened his support for drilling and should not make people afraid of what he said is a viable path to energy independence. He said that future sites should learn from the ongoing response efforts.

"Something negative happens, and government's response is to control it, regulate it and then kill it," he said. "We've gotten to a point that it's not a question of if we do it, but how do we do it right."

"The fact that we have an opportunity for the first time in a decade to build new sites for drilling ... I think we're fortunate in that technology is progressing, and that it will be a far safer and far better operation as we move forward," he said.

The spill off the Gulf Coast "makes it even more critical that we have appropriate safety measures in place," said Paul Thurmond, a Republican. "It's my understanding that they had more than a dozen failures in regards to this spill."

Thurmond said he still sees offshore drilling as viable, and he said the industry must make sure another incident of this size doesn't happen.

"We need to be really comfortable that the safety mechanisms will work," he said. "We have to be conscious that this could have an effect on numerous industries."

Another Republican, Stovall Witte, said any incident of this magnitude makes one think a bit differently, but he continues to support offshore drilling.

He said that the main type of drilling being discussed off the S.C. coast is for natural gas, so even if there were a similar accident the effects would be different. If oil is found in addition to natural gas, he would not automatically support it, he said.

"We need to do the exploration to find what resources are there for sure," Witte said. "We just need to take a very studious and careful approach to this."

Democratic candidate Robert Burton said a similar incident here would be devastating. It would be impossible to compensate people for losing their entire way of life and it could bring the economy to a halt for several years while beaches were cleaned up, he said.

"You're not just talking about hurting our economy, but you're talking about crippling our economy," Burton said.

Burton said the spill has only strengthened his opposition to offshore drilling.

1st District candidates Ben Frasier, a Democrat, Republican Clark Parker and Jimmy Wood, an independent, could not be reached for comment.