To hear the politicians tell it, South Carolina’s ship has come in — and it’s a big ol’ shiny oil tanker.

See, last week federal regulators announced plans to lease offshore waters from Virginia to Georgia, which would allow oil companies to come in and set up the derricks.

State and federal officials — well, the Republican ones — claim this will mean jobs and investment in South Carolina, and crowed that the Obama administration had finally caved to their demands.

This, they chortle, will lower our dependence on foreign oil.

At the same time, all the environmentalists and even the mayor of Myrtle Beach warned that this could be Armageddon for the coast. A single oil spill, they fear, could ruin our beaches and therefore South Carolina’s top industry — tourism.

So either all our troubles are over or the end is nigh, depending on who you believe.

But it might be best to not believe any of them.

For years scientists have said there isn’t enough oil off our coast to be worth the cost of recovery, but they can’t seem to ‘drill, baby, drill’ that into anyone’s thick skull.

“It’s a waste of time,” says geologist Mitchell Colgan, chairman of the College of Charleston’s Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences. “They are raising false expectations of the potential economic benefits for the state.”

So much for saying sayonara to the Saudis.

Drilling proponents don’t believe such pessimistic assessments.

The truth is surveys have had differing results, and expeditions in the 1940s and ‘50s pumped a lot of dry holes off Florida.

Some say there is 3.3 billion barrels’ worth out there, but others estimate they could only extract perhaps enough oil from the entire Atlantic in a year to feed our habit for about four days. And much of that is in areas not proposed for leasing.

That is clearly not worth the time and expense.

Now the pro-drilling crowd says that no survey has been done in decades, and there are fancy new 3-D gadgets that will find all the beautiful black gold out there. But Colgan points out that this 3-D seismic imaging they are talking about is used primarily to define existing reservoirs.

The old technology would have found oil if it was there, he says.

The other argument is that this is really about searching for natural gas or gas hydrates. Colgan says that, too, is unlikely. There is no evidence of significant deposits, apparently, and gas hydrates are dangerous in water — they tend to explode. There is no perfected way of getting such gases, should they exist, out of the ocean floor.

“It’s not recoverable and it’s not economical,” he says.

Not when you not only have to go out and get the stuff, but build the pipelines and all the other infrastructure needs associated with recovery.

To put that in terms a layman, or politician, could understand: none of this makes any business sense.

And Big Oil isn’t stupid.

This is a debate we apparently must have because, well, it’s good for both sides.

The pro-drilling politicians and the environmentalists can stir up their donors, scream the sky is falling and raise some money.

That doesn’t mean we are about to be swimming in more oil than The Beverly Hillbillies.

Colgan says if anyone suspected there really was a lot of oil out there, the petroleum companies would have been clamoring for these leases much more loudly.

So folks should probably calm down. Certainly the environmentalists need to file their protests, but we probably don’t have to worry about our beaches ending up covered in tar balls like poor Gulf Shores.

Because the science suggests we will never get to that point.

If people want to get stirred up about offshore power, seems like a safer bet would be Clemson’s clean and safe wind turbine project.

But then, why even go offshore for that? They could probably do just as well surrounding Washington and Columbia with their big windmills.

As this debate proves, hot air is truly America’s most renewable resource.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com