Romney turns focus to energy in Virginia

Mitt Romney is betting that he can win over Virginia voters by attacking President Obama’s energy record in the battleground state.

Ahead of a speech Thursday afternoon near Norfolk, Va., the Romney campaign took aim at Obama for blocking oil development off Virginia’s coast, a plan supported by Republicans in the state, including Gov. Bob McDonnell.

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“At a time when nearly 23 million Americans are struggling for work, President Obama has sacrificed thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue by targeting Virginia’s offshore drilling efforts,” Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement.

“This is just the latest example of a president who is more interested in playing politics than creating jobs and getting the economy moving again.”

Republicans have slammed the Obama administration’s decision not to sell oil-and-gas leases off the Atlantic Coast though a leasing moratorium expired in 2008.

The administration, after the BP oil spill, scrapped a planned 2011 lease sale off Virginia’s coast that had been scheduled during the Bush administration.

The White House also has retreated from Atlantic oil development more broadly. Shortly before the April 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration had announced plans to sell leases off the coasts of mid-Atlantic and southeastern states in the 2012-2017 period.

But the plan was scuttled after the disaster. The Interior Department’s revised 2012-2017 plan focuses on selling leases in the central and western Gulf of Mexico and, in the later years of the five-year schedule, includes sales off Alaska’s northern coast.

The Romney and Obama campaigns are turning their attention to Virginia this week. A victory in the state is essential for either candidate to win in November.

Romney held a fundraiser and gave a speech in Northern Virginia Wednesday ahead of his speech Thursday near Norfolk. Obama is slated to officially begin his campaign with a rally at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond Saturday.

The Romney campaign has increasingly bashed Obama over energy policy, alleging that the administration is standing in the way of increased oil-and-gas development and bashing the president for rejecting in January a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The campaign hopes the attacks will resonate with voters worried about high gasoline prices.

“President Obama likes to say that ‘we can’t wait’ to solve America’s problems, but he has done nothing but wait when it comes to America’s energy security. His opposition to developing domestic energy resources imperils our economic future and our national security,” Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director, said in a statement.

“While President Obama is content with endless ‘studying’ and delay, Mitt Romney has a plan that will put Americans to back work, pump billions of dollars into the economy, and strengthen our energy security for decades to come.”

Keeping with the energy theme, the latest Romney campaign advertisement, released Thursday, knocks Obama for “broken promises” on energy policy.

The White House and Obama campaigns, keenly aware of the political toll high gas prices could have on the president’s reelection bid, have worked aggressively to undercut Republican criticism on energy issues.

Obama has traveled across the country in recent months touting his “all-of-the-above” energy plan, which focuses on expanded domestic oil-and-gas development, improved vehicle fuel efficiency and increased investments in renewable energy, among other things.

The president has sought to counter GOP claims that he is standing in the way of expanded oil-and-gas development, touting federal data that show oil production at its highest level since 2003.

Total production from U.S. lands and waters, which the federal government controls, has increased during Obama’s time in office. But offshore production dipped in 2011, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Energy experts say federal policymakers have little control over gas prices, as they are tethered to oil prices, which are set on world markets. Even a dramatic expansion of domestic oil-and-gas leasing would have little short-term effect on prices, they say.

— Ben Geman contributed to this report.