* Obama to press agencies on Keystone pipeline's southern
* Rising gas prices could threaten re-election bid
* Republicans criticize Obama's energy record
By Jeff Mason
BOULDER CITY, Nevada, March 21 President Barack
Obama will direct federal agencies on Thursday to speed
approvals of one portion of the controversial Keystone pipeline,
in a move designed to ease political pressure on the White House
as the industry frets about a glut of oil trapped in the region.
Obama, who is under pressure from voters over rising
gasoline prices, used a stop at a solar panel facility in Nevada
on Wednesday to accuse Republicans of ignoring renewable fuels
that could help wean the United States off foreign oil.
Republicans cite Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL
pipeline from Canada and support for a now bankrupt solar panel
company, along with higher gasoline prices, as evidence his
energy policies are not working.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick
Santorum and Newt Gingrich have made energy a key component of
their pitches to become their party's nominee to take on Obama,
a Democrat, on Nov. 6.
On Thursday, the president will tackle critics of his
decision to block the Keystone head on, going to Cushing,
Oklahoma, where TransCanada Corp plans to build the southern leg
of the project, which Obama supports.
In the Cushing oil hub, an oil surplus has been growing
because of a lack of pipelines to get rising crude supplies from
the U.S. Midwest and Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
White House officials said Obama will announce a new order
directing the U.S. government to expedite the permitting process
for the southern leg of the project.
Meanwhile, standing against a backdrop of shiny solar panels
in the political battleground state of Nevada, Obama said
drilling for fossil fuels was not the only answer to U.S. energy
security, as he said Republicans wanted Americans to believe.
"An energy strategy that focuses only on drilling and not on
an energy strategy that will free ourselves from our dependence
on foreign oil, that's a losing strategy," he said.
"I'm not going ... to cede our position to China or Germany
or all the other competitors out there who are making massive
investments in clean energy technology."
Obama is on a two-day, four-state trip to promote plans to
reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, deflecting Republican
attacks while branding critics as "members of the flat earth
society" for defending tax subsidies to oil companies.
FOCUSED ON OIL AND GAS
Obama and his advisers have painted Republicans as solely
focused on oil and gas drilling to the detriment of other energy
sources, while mocking Gingrich - without naming him - for
promising to bring gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon.
Republicans dismissed his step to speed up the pipeline
permit process as an attempt to distract America's attention.
"There is only one permit that matters for this pipeline,
and the president continues to block it," said Brendan Buck,
spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the
top Republican in Congress.
"The approval needed for this leg of the project is so minor
and routine that only a desperate administration would inject
the president of the United States into the process."
However, analysts said the trip was a good way for Obama to
show he had no silver bullet to deal with gasoline prices, a
fact the president has emphasized repeatedly.
"Obviously, with the recent spike in gas prices, energy is
an issue weighing heavily on the minds of many Americans," said
Professor David Konisky at Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
"Like any president, there is little that Obama can do in
the short-term to bring down prices, which makes it difficult to
alleviate public concerns."
Obama will try to address those concerns with a show of
force about what his administration is doing to promote
renewable energy as well as oil and gas drilling.
In Boulder City, Obama toured the Copper Mountain Solar 1
Facility which, with nearly 1 million solar panels, is the
largest photovoltaic plant operating in the United States.
His visit comes one day after the United States imposed
duties on solar panel imports from China, adding to trade
tension between the world's two largest economies and risking
cooperation in the burgeoning clean-energy sector.
Obama's next stop will be outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, an
area with more than 70 active drilling rigs.
Republicans, who portray Obama as reluctant to increase
domestic drilling, viewed his trip as a campaign exercise.
"It's clear the president is on defense on energy as
Americans continue to believe his policies are contributing to
higher gas prices, and no amount of campaigning is going to
change that reality," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the
Republican National Committee.
Obama finishes his trip in Ohio - a critical battleground
state in the November election - at a university that does
advanced energy research.