CUSHING, Oklahoma (Reuters) - Standing in front of a row of pipes, President Barack Obama pledged on Thursday to accelerate approval for part of the Keystone XL pipeline, seeking to deflect criticism that his rejection of the full project helped create a climate for high gasoline prices.
Rising fuel costs are threatening to derail Obama's hopes of winning re-election in November, and Republicans have honed in on his decision to block TransCanada Corp's Canada-to-Texas pipeline as a sign that his energy priorities were hurting America.
U.S. gasoline prices have jumped nearly 30 cents in the past month, pushing the national average to $3.87 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Obama's trip to Cushing, Oklahoma, the starting site of the southern leg of the controversial project, was designed to show his "all of the above" energy strategy included room for oil and gas development in addition to support for renewable fuels.
"Today I'm directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority," Obama said, standing without a tie at a podium that was surrounded by rows of green- and copper-colored piping segments.
The White House relished the setting and clearly wanted the photo-op. Bad weather nearly forced Obama to deliver his remarks in an Oklahoma City hotel instead.
It is unclear whether Obama's call would actually speed up the approval process. The Army Corps of Engineers, one of the agencies that is likely to be involved, said on Wednesday it could not estimate how long approval would take since it had not yet seen an application from the company.
Republicans dismissed Obama's move as a publicity stunt that made little difference to the timeline of the southern project or the problem of U.S. energy security. "He's taking credit for going forward on the only portion of the pipeline that he doesn't need to approve," said Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota at a press conference. "This is literally straddling both sides of the issue." Hoeven has led the charge in the Senate to pass legislation that would bypass the administration and approve the full pipeline.