By Andrew Restuccia and Amie Parnes - 03/22/12 04:36 PM EDT
As gasoline prices continue to rise, President Obama on Thursday pushed back on attacks from Republicans that he is blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline and is against drilling, arguing his administration has added enough new oil-and-gas pipelines to "encircle the Earth and then some."
Obama highlighted his support for the southern leg of the controversial Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Cushing, Okla., to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
“Today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make the project a priority,” said Obama, who earlier this year rejected a GOP bid to force construction on the full pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
Republicans quickly dismissed the speech and the executive order as a public relations stunt.
“Today he's out in Oklahoma trying to take credit for a part of the pipeline that doesn't even require his approval. Now this is what I'm calling the Obama energy gap,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said during a press conference at the Capitol.
“There's a big gap between what the president promises and what he talks about and the actions that he's taking."
The Cushing speech is the latest in a two-day, four-state tour meant to tout the president’s energy plan and undercut GOP attacks over high gas prices. The White House is trying to change the optics of the issue to the president’s advantage, putting Obama in front of a field of solar panels on Wednesday and oil piping on Thursday.
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The president’s tone has undergone a subtle change, too.
Obama spent the last few weeks — at universities and manufacturing plants — emphasizing that there are no “silver bullets” or “easy fixes” to solving the current crisis at gas pumps.
But the phrases have been absent from the president's stump speeches in Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Instead, a defensive Obama seemed to put a renewed emphasis on the steps his administration has taken to increase drilling: “We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth,” Obama said.
“If you talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your aunts, your uncles and they're wondering what’s going on in terms of oil production, you just tell them anybody who suggests that somehow we're suppressing domestic oil production isn't paying attention," he said during the 11-minute speech. "They are not paying attention."
Republicans continued to pummel Obama Thursday for his January rejection of a key permit that would have allowed developer TransCanada to build a pipeline segment that crossed the U.S.-Canada border.
“President Obama’s public relations exercise in Cushing, Oklahoma, does nothing to change the fact that he is blocking a vital project that would reduce our dependence on hostile oil producers and create thousands of private sector jobs at no taxpayer expense,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), a vocal proponent of the pipeline, said in a statement. “This incomprehensible obstructionism by the president will weaken our economy and our security.”
Obama said the January decision to reject the permit was not based on the merits of the project, but on a GOP-backed, 60-day deadline included in an extension of the payroll tax cut.
“Members of Congress, who decided this might be a fun political issue, decided to intervene,” Obama said during his speech, in an effort to blame Republicans for the Keystone delay.
The president insisted that the rest of the Keystone pipeline — which would originate in Alberta, Canada — needs further review to ensure it doesn’t harm an ecologically sensitive region of Nebraska.
“The northern portion of it we’re going to have to review properly to make sure the health and safety of the American people is protected,” he said. “That’s common sense.”
Republicans say that in rejecting the permit, Obama passed up an opportunity to create thousands of jobs and boost the economy. Opponents of the pipeline say the benefits of the project are greatly overstated.
Throughout his speech, a professorial Obama aimed to educate the crowd about the intricacies of oil markets.
“We are drilling more. We are producing more. But the fact is, producing more oil at home is not enough to bring gas prices down,” he said.
“Even if we drilled every little bit of this great country of ours, we’d still have to buy the rest of our needs from someplace else if we continue to use the same amount of energy, the same amount of oil.”
Energy experts say that federal policymakers have little control over gas prices, as they are tethered to oil prices, which are set on world markets.
Obama stressed the importance of weaning the country off its dependence on foreign oil, which he said makes the United States vulnerable to price spikes.
“The main reason gas prices are high right now is people are worried about what’s happening in Iran,” he said, referring to growing tensions with that country.
Obama’s decision to back the southern section of the pipeline puts the president at odds with his liberal environmental base.
“President Obama's capitulation to TransCanada on this project is a slap in the face to young voters across the country. In 2008, we mobilized in record numbers for a president who promised to free us from the tyranny of oil, but now he's committing to 'drill everywhere he can,' and is giving favors out to foreign oil companies,” the Energy Action Coalition, a group of 50 youth-oriented environmental groups, said in a statement.
Activists are organizing a protest outside Obama’s speech later Thursday at the University of Ohio to oppose Obama’s support for the southern leg of the Keystone project.
Environmental groups organized two high-profile, anti-Keystone protests at the White House last year. More than 1,000 people were arrested during a two-week sit-in at the White House in August.
Opponents of Keystone XL raise concerns about increased greenhouse-gas emissions from oil sands production and potential oil spills along the pipeline route, among other things.
Obama will finish up the energy tour — which included stops at a solar plant in Nevada and an oil field in New Mexico on Wednesday — with a speech at Ohio State University later Thursday.
This story was updated at 3:25 p.m.