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The oil leaking from a blown-apart drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico haunted public comments Tuesday on the issue of exploring for oil and gas off South Carolina's coast.

Only about 40 people turned out in a Charleston Area Convention Center meeting room where seating had been set out for nearly 300. Only about half as many attended the night session.

About a dozen people made comments at the first of two hearings held by the federal Minerals Management Service. They were as divided as South Carolinians generally are on the politically charged issue of whether the potential for new energy reserves and revenue outweighs the risks to an $18 billion tourism industry, fishing and other interests.

Representatives for industries such as the Polarcus exploration company and Piedmont Natural Gas pushed for the exploration and advocated expanding it to the northern East Coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico. They took turns with local people, one of whom carried a handmade sign that read, "There are proven ways of getting clean energy and we can forget about dirty oil."

"I cannot forget that energy development comes with a risk," Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association trade group, said after he mentioned the deadly oil platform disaster and the recent loss of miners in West Virginia. But the tragedies shouldn't overshadow the progress the industries have made, he said.

Even with the development of alternative energies, fossil fuels will still supply two-thirds of the energy needs of the country in 2035, he said. "We should honor their sacrifice by moving forward with energy exploration."

"You can use all the statistics you want" to show that oil spills rarely happen, said Diane De Angelis, a Kiawah Island Conservancy trustee. "But it did happen. South Carolina and Georgia have 43 percent of the salt marsh on the eastern coastline. Once we destroy the nursery of the tidal creeks and salt marshes, it's gone for many generations."

The hearings were the first step in a labored process to decide whether to permit geophysical exploration offshore, essentially firing off air guns dragged by ships to create a series of seismic blasts to read the "echo" beneath the sea floor. The hearings are part of a series of hearings along the coast to get public input for an environmental impact statement.

The preliminary statement is due by 2011. The issue would then go to another round of public hearings before a decision is made by March 2012. Public comments for this round are being taken by e-mail and mail until May 17.

Last month, the Obama administration announced plans to open offshore waters on the East Coast to oil and gas exploration. The idea that potential supplies off the South Carolina coast aren't large enough to interest energy companies doesn't mean nobody wants to test the water. Seven companies already have applied. It's been more than 30 years since the coast has been explored.

The exploration technology "has changed at least as dramatically since the 1980s as technology has for the rest of us," said Joseph Christopher, MMS leasing and exploration regional supervisor. "If you want to know what's down there, there is a genuine need" to explore.