* Obama to press agencies on Keystone pipeline’s southern leg
* Rising gas prices could threaten re-election bid
* Republicans criticize Obama’s energy record
By Jeff Mason
BOULDER CITY, Nevada, March 21 (Reuters) - 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.
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.