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Obama in Oklahoma backs southern pipeline leg

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March 21, 2012: President Obama discusses his oil and gas policies during a visit to a drilling site in Maljamar, N.M.AP

Just weeks after nixing TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL Pipeline from the Canadian border to Texas over environmental concerns, President Obama came to the heart of Oklahoma oil country on Thursday to insist he's a fan of the industry and give his approval to the southern leg of the project.

"Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of our all-of-the-above strategy," Obama said standing in front of thousands of pipes that will eventually help transport a glut of oil from Cushing to the Texas side of the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama signed an executive order and issued a presidential memorandum to show he's in favor of moving forward on this project, which is essentially a tiny leg of the proposed, 1,700-mile-long Keystone Pipeline. The aim is to deal with excess supply that is keeping gasoline prices in this region low but high elsewhere.

"Today, I am directing my administration to cut through red tape, break through bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority," Obama said amid applause.

Republicans fired back the president is hyping his role in relieving the bottlenecked supply because construction on this portion of the pipeline is expected to start in June -- with or without him.

"After more than three years of environmental study by various agencies, the president in January denied ... a permit for the entire project, stranding more than 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada, North Dakota and other upper Great Plains states," said a group of GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "Today, however, he took credit for a section of the pipeline that required no presidential approval. The fact is, the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t require presidential consent because it doesn’t cross an international border." 

White House aides said that argument is incorrect because federal permits still need to be issued.

They say Thursday's executive order will help here and that it will help the president to get as much domestic oil to market as possible.

Republicans counter the president's two-day energy tour is a sign he's on defense over soaring gasoline prices.

"Why is the president holding it up, then trying to take credit for it?," asked Sen. John Hoeven, R-S.D. "This is bizarre. The president's denial of the full Keystone XL pipeline project is causing real hardship for real people in my home state of North Dakota, where we’re still moving product by truck and rail rather than by pipeline, which is safer and more efficient." 

He was joined in the response by Sens. John Thune, S.D.; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Richard Lugar, Ind.; John Cornyn, Texas, Roy Blunt, Mo.; David Vitter, La. and  Rep. Lee Terry, Neb.

The public seems to agree: a recent Fox News poll found 67 percent of registered voters support building Keystone. That includes 87 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Independents and 50 percent of Democrats.

Today Obama again blamed Republicans for forcing a quick decision on Keystone -- and vowed to carefully review any future TransCanada requests.

"As long as I'm President, we're going to keep encouraging oil development and infrastructure in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people," he vowed.