South Carolina's Republican Party chairman announced support Wednesday for a campaign to allow oil exploration off the coast of South Carolina and other states, an idea that concerns environmental and tourism interests and is opposed by many Democratic leaders and candidates.

According to the state GOP, party Chairman Katon Dawson is the first Republican Party chairman in the country to endorse the "Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less." campaign launched by American Solutions, an organization chaired by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"If we take the bold step to cultivate energy resources here at home, we will not only break our dependence on foreign oil, we will also bring meaningful relief to hardworking families who are experiencing unprecedented pain at the pump as gas prices continue to skyrocket," Dawson said.

Federal rules allow gas and oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, but there has been a moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for 26 years. Oil companies, with some GOP support, have long sought to lift the moratorium.

Last year in Charleston Shell Oil Corp. sponsored a roundtable discussion on the subject. At that event, supporters of coastal oil and gas exploration said that even if the practice were allowed off South Carolina today, it could take at least 10 years to produce any new supplies.

Opponents made the same point.

"It would offer no immediate relief from the tremendous burden posed by rising gas and oil prices," said Democratic National Committee member Waring Howe Jr., of Charleston. "Putting my Democratic hat aside for a moment, I, as a life-long South Carolinian, fear that we could pay a tremendous environmental price."

Dawson said it's true that offshore drilling would provide no instant relief from high gas prices.

"It's about releasing the grip that oil dictators have on our economy," he said. "It's not just drilling offshore. It's solar power and wind power."

Dawson also said environmental concerns are a high priority for everyone, including oil companies.

"We have wonderful technology and good, fine, responsible companies," he said.

Environmental groups and Southeastern states with large tourism economies expressed concern or outright opposition to expanded exploration and drilling when Congress took up the issue in 2006.