Odessa American, Mark Sterkel, Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Deep in Republican oil country, President Barack Obama is fending off criticism of his energy policies, pointing to plans to fast-track an oil pipeline that emerged after he delayed the larger Keystone XL project earlier this year.
Obama was directing federal agencies Thursday to expedite a 485-mile line from Oklahoma to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast that would remove a critical bottleneck in the country's oil transportation system. The directive would also apply to other pipelines that alleviate choke points.
"We're drilling all over the place," Obama said in Maljamar, N.M., on Wednesday, standing alongside oil rigs on federal land. The president was announcing his plans for the expedited pipeline, a southern portion of the original Keystone XL, in Cushing, Okla., where construction is expected to begin this spring.
In oil fields and amid acres of solar panels, Obama is trying to rebut charges that he has stifled domestic energy production and been too eager to spend government money on renewable energy projects as gas prices have climbed to $3.86 a gallon. His emphasis on oil drilling is aimed at countering criticism of his rejection of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
For Obama's advisers, rising gas prices pose a threat to his re-election bid because they could undermine the benefits of a payroll tax cut that he made the centerpiece of his jobs agenda last fall — Congress approved the tax cut extension in February — and throttle the economic recovery.
Republicans view rising gas prices as emblematic of Obama's energy record and hope to tag him with the blame even though no president has much control over prices at the pump. Gas prices have risen more than 50 cents a gallon since January in response to a standoff over Iran's nuclear program that has threatened to disrupt Middle East oil supplies.
GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, campaigning at a Harvey, La., company that services oil rigs, said Obama's administration should open more federal lands for leases to boost U.S. oil production and revenue for the federal government.
"Here's an opportunity for us in this country to do something about it: increasing jobs, lowering energy prices, decreasing the deficit, all of the things you would think the president of the United States would be for," Santorum said.
Mitt Romney, Santorum's chief rival for the Republican nomination, has labeled Obama's top energy advisers as the "gas hike trio," urging the president to fire three Cabinet secretaries because of the high prices.
The status of the Keystone XL pipeline has been a focal point in the heated political fight over energy development.
Calgary-based TransCanada said it hopes to complete the $2.3 billion Oklahoma-to-Texas section next year after receiving the last approvals it needs to start construction. Many of the permits and environmental reviews already have been completed as part of the larger Keystone project, company officials said.
Republicans questioned whether the executive actions by Obama would speed up the pipeline's construction and said it reiterated the need for the larger Keystone XL pipeline.
"The American people can't afford more half-measures on energy from the president. No matter what he says, the reality is he killed the Keystone pipeline and the energy production and 20,000 jobs that went with it," said Kirsten Kukowski, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.
Obama's energy tour was also aimed at defending his administration's support of renewable energy projects, an agenda tarnished by his administration's decision to pump millions into California solar company Solyndra before it collapsed.
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