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Candidates offer stances on drilling

The massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has heightened voter interest in the positions of S.C. gubernatorial candidates when it comes to oil and gas exploration off the Carolinas coast.

Two of three Democrats vying to win their party's primary on June 8 oppose drilling for oil off South Carolina's coast, but they advocate offshore exploration of natural gas. The third supports drilling for both gas and oil.

The four Republicans support drilling for natural gas off South Carolina's shores and pushing the federal government to remove nuclear waste from the state. But they have different views on the type of oil exploration that has led to the massive Gulf oil spill.

The candidates in both parties offered their thoughts on energy policy during a series of interviews with The Associated Press.

Democrats

State schools Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen said they doubt that there's enough oil off the state's coastline to be commercially feasible. Rex said even if there were enough, the risk to South Carolina's beaches would not be worth it.

"If BP doesn't know how to respond to this kind of malfunction or crisis, the likelihood is, no oil company in the world would know," Rex said of the crude that's been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month. He called images of Louisiana's salt marshes "just sickening. The thought of that blanketing the coast of South Carolina? No."

But natural gas doesn't carry those environmental risks, and makes a lot of sense for the state's economy, said Rex, a 68-year-old former college president.

Once a commercial fisherman, Rex was the only candidate of either party to also suggest the rigs could even benefit the fishing industry as artificial reefs, but he said they either need to be low-profile or far enough off the coast so they can't be seen from land.

Charleston state Sen. Robert Ford, a 61-year-old Louisiana native, introduced legislation for the 2009-10 session directing South Carolina's environmental agency to speed up applications of offshore drilling for oil and gas. The measure has stalled since advancing from a Senate subcommittee on April 21, a day after the BP-leased oil rig exploded.

Ford said he's not a scientist, so he couldn't speak with authority on where to site drilling rigs, but said the Gulf accident should not delay offshore exploration, especially for natural gas, provided the federal government does more to regulate the industry.

Ford says he supports wind energy as a job creator. Clemson University scientists are creating a $98 million wind turbine research facility at the old Charleston Naval Base, in his district.

Rex and Sheheen said they support the expansion of nuclear energy for job creation and energy independence - and said South Carolina is poised to be a national leader on that front.

"We have a lot of nuclear engineers, nuclear technicians, which a lot of states don't have because it's been an industry that's been basically shut down for decades," Rex said.

Republicans

Four-term U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, two-term Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, three-term state Rep. Nikki Haley and two-term Attorney General Henry McMaster all say natural gas reserves off South Carolina's coast could be an economic boon to the state and help the country become energy independent.

Barrett, 49, of Westminster, predicts tapping into natural gas would create thousands of jobs and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties. He proposes putting 70 percent of that revenue toward infrastructure, 20 percent to law enforcement and 10 percent into renewable energies.

Some experts doubt that commercially feasible oil exists off South Carolina's coast, but three candidates want to explore, provided safeguards are in place. Haley compared the flow of crude in the Gulf of Mexico to a plane crash.

"We don't stop all the planes from flying. What we do is we look at that accident, we learn from it and say, 'What do we need to do to make sure that it doesn't happen again?' That's the same thing here," said Haley, 38, of Lexington.

Bauer said the $75 million federal cap on oil spill liability, beyond direct cleanup costs, must be lifted to prompt companies to use the latest technology and equipment.

McMaster had more reservations, saying it may be impossible to ensure oil drilling can be done without a spill.

All four champion the expansion of nuclear energy, both for job creation and as a clean energy solution. They support promoting other alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydrogen, but say only nuclear currently offers substantial energy output.

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