TIOGA, N.D. — Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been spending plenty of time in oil country lately, prospecting for GOP votes — and money.
He tromped through an oil field in the frigid northwest corner of booming North Dakota on Wednesday to tell local industry and government officials he wanted to "learn about what you're doing here and what we can do not to screw it up."
"You are producing a very, very, very important resource to our country that is needed and will be needed even more in the future. As president of the United States, I'll have your back," Santorum later told an audience packed into a high school auditorium.
In the past week, Santorum also hit themes of peeling back regulations in Oklahoma and Texas, where newly built high-rise office towers with energy company logos are a testament to a strong sector of the economy. The energy money that flows to political campaigns is up for grabs this go around, which could help explain Santorum's recent focus.
In all three fuel-rich states, the GOP contender spoke industry language meant to forge a common bond with his hosts. He quizzed audiences on where the nation's first oil well was drilled before quickly answering with Titusville, Pa., the former senator's home state.
"I don't own any oil wells — yet. Maybe one of these days I will. I hope to," he joked to one crowd.
Santorum has voiced support for environmentally risky hydraulic fracking practices, the on-hold Keystone pipeline and oil exploration in Alaska's wilderness. He says a Santorum administration would quickly reverse regulations imposed by Democratic President Barack Obama that he thinks are stifling energy development or creating too much uncertainty for investors.
In stop after stop, Santorum hammers the Obama administration for not green-lighting the Keystone pipeline that would carry oil from Canada through Plains states to refineries in Texas. He accuses the president of bowing to environmental interests at the expense of jobs and a promise of more domestically produced energy. Obama says his administration needed more time than allowed by a GOP deadline to study the pipeline's impact.
"We have a president who in the energy sector of our economy is doing everything possible to crush energy production in this country," Santorum said, calling concerns about pollution and other environmental harm scare tactics and the "politicization of science."
Obama's defenders, such as the League of Conservation Voters, say Santorum's views are "far out of the mainstream" and indicate they would pounce if he's the GOP nominee.
"He's providing the most extreme view of the oil industry," said Navin Nayak, who oversee the league's political efforts.
But Santorum's message resonates with Republican audiences as well as industry executives capable of writing those big campaign checks. And, if there's one thing Santorum needs now that polls show him running neck and neck with chief GOP competitor Mitt Romney, it's money.
As Santorum toured the North Dakota oil patch and a nearby "man camp" — a compound for 1,200 oil workers who flocked to the region for the promise of a steady paycheck — top industry officials were close by.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents 200 companies, called Santorum "the right guy at the right time" and someone the energy sector could rally behind.
"He completely gets energy," Ness said.
Tioga is in the heart of North Dakota's burgeoning oil industry. The self-touted "Oil Capital of North Dakota" is where crude was first discovered in the state 60 years ago and is now inextricably linked to the oil and natural gas industries. North Dakota drillers produced a record 152.9 million barrels of crude in 2011, up nearly 40 million barrels from the previous record set a year earlier, according to state regulators.
The energy and natural resource sectors are fertile for Republican candidates. Four years ago, 60 percent of the $12.2 million donated from that sector went to GOP presidential candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So far this campaign, those givers are slanted even more in the GOP's direction though the lead recipient, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is no longer in the race. Romney has received the next highest amount from that sector, slightly more than $1 million through the end of 2011, according to the nonprofit campaign watchdog's analysis of employers of donors giving more than $200 apiece.
Santorum had pulled in barely $34,000 at last check.
Bakst reported from St. Paul, Minn.