COLUMBIA — People who oppose offshore drilling for oil or natural gas to protect some bird, whale or fish are just whistling Dixie, state Sen. Robert Ford says.

Others who say that drilling offshore will bring down gas prices at the pump are whistling the same fruitless tune.

No matter the viewpoint, the debate over offshore drilling is in full gear, and Ford wants the state Legislature to take on the issue.

"There is no way no political expert is going to be able to explain to everyday citizens that, 'It is best for us not to drill offshore to protect some bird or whale or fish.' They are simply whistling 'Dixie'," said Ford, D-Charleston.

Following the news this week that President Bush lifted an executive ban on new offshore drilling, Ford is having a bill drafted that will call for the practice to begin here. One thing in the way is a congressional moratorium that has been in place since the early 1980s.

Congress must act on that ban before any drilling could be considered.

Legislative researchers are finding that South Carolina has no restrictions on offshore drilling, although lawmakers could decide to have the Department of Health and Environmental Control adopt procedures in the event that the federal ban is lifted. Or the state could challenge the federal restriction on drilling in court, Ford said.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he expects the Legislature to give the topic attention when it reconvenes in January.

"It is something we need to look at very closely with gas prices where they are," Harrell said. "It needs to be considered, but we have to make sure that if we allow that we protect our coast in the process." He also said care must be taken to protect the tourism industry.

The idea has support within the South Carolina congressional delegation, and the option of exploration is endorsed by the state GOP. If legislation passes on the federal level it could leave the decision in the hands of individual states.

Ford said it is time for his Democratic counterparts to respond to the public's cry for help. His perspective is that technology will take care of environmental concerns, and in the meantime scientists can develop fuel alternatives.

"Let's use the oil the Lord has provided," Ford said.

Hamilton Davis, project manager at the Coastal Conservation League, said the idea of feeling immediate relief at the pump is a ruse. New offshore drilling would not significantly affect prices, and any domestic oil harvested would not make it to the pumps before 2030, he said.

"We have a knee-jerk reaction because of gas prices, and big oil is taking advantage of it," Davis said. He also listed environmental concerns, such as increased demand for transportation infrastructure to support drilling, the installation of pipelines along the ocean floor and the potential for disasters caused by coastal hurricanes.

"My guess is that this discussion is a result of the fact that we're in an election year," Davis said.

In addition to the bill that will be introduced by Ford, Citizens for Sound Conservation announced Wednesday that it was starting a "Bury the Ban" campaign to see the congressional moratorium lifted.

"We have studied this issue and believe that exploratory drilling can be done in an environmentally safe and sound way in which the habitat is protected and our economic interests are promoted," Lewis Gossett, group chairman, said in a statement.