CUSHING, Oklahoma (AP) _ President Barack Obama firmly defended his record on oil drilling Thursday, ordering the government to fast-track an Oklahoma pipeline while accusing Congress of playing politics with a larger Canada-to-Gulf Coast project.
Deep in Republican oil country, Obama said lawmakers refused to give his administration enough time review the controversial 1,170-mile (1,880-kilometer) Keystone XL pipeline in order to ensure that it wouldn't compromise the health and safety of people living in surrounding areas.
“Unfortunately, Congress decided they wanted their own timeline,'' Obama said.
Obama's 2-day trip highlighting his energy agenda during a presidential election year reflects the degree to which high gas prices have begun hitting consumers in their pocketbooks.
Facing fresh criticism from Republicans who blame him for gas prices near $4 a gallon (3.7 liters), Obama announced that he was directing federal agencies to expedite a 485-mile (780-kilometer) pipeline from Oklahoma to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast that would remove a critical bottleneck in the country's oil transportation system. The directive would apply to other pipelines that alleviate choke points.
“Anyone who says that we're somehow suppressing domestic oil production isn't paying attention,'' Obama said, speaking at the site of the Oklahoma project.
Republicans said the moves were little more than a publicity stunt, arguing that it wouldn't help Canadian company TransCanada build the pipeline any sooner. Construction is expected to begin in June, with completion next year.
“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.
Environmentalists were also critical. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council said Obama's move was “downright foolhardy to cut corners on safety reviews for permitting'' the Texas-to-Oklahoma line, “especially when the industry has a history of oil spills.''
Canadian supporters of the Keystone pipeline applauded Obama's directive but urged the president to approve the northern leg.
Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said that while the directive is a step in the right direction, it neglects the most vital part of the pipeline for Canada.
“I think the important thing to keep in mind is that it doesn't help move incremental volume out of Canada so we still need the northern leg of the pipeline to be built or some other alternative,'' Collyer said.
The northern portion of the pipeline needs Obama administration approval because it would cross the Canadian border.
Obama's order urges speedy review of the Oklahoma pipeline project and directs federal agencies to incorporate previous environmental studies of the Keystone proposal that included the southern route.
The use of previous studies should help move the project forward more quickly than if a review of the project started from scratch, although it's unclear exactly how much time the expedited review will save.
Republicans call the president's actions a belated attempt to take credit for a project over which he has relatively little control. While federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department play a role in the approval process for the domestic portion of the pipeline, states have a more direct say in approving the route.
The full Keystone pipeline became a political flashpoint late last year when congressional Republicans wrote a provision forcing Obama to make a decision, and environmental groups waged a campaign to kill the project. Obama delayed the project in January.
Obama has been highlighting his energy agenda this week in Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and later Thursday in battleground Ohio.
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, 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.
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, campaigning at a Louisiana company that services oil rigs, said Obama's administration should open more federal lands for leases to boost U.S. oil production and government revenue.
“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, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has called Obama's top energy advisers the “gas hike trio,'' urging the president to fire three Cabinet secretaries because of the high prices.
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.
Obama was ending the day with a stop in battleground Ohio, an important election state which has voted both Republican and Democrat in past presidential contests.