President Obama declared Thursday that he would expedite construction of the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, a move that angered environmentalists while doing little to quell critics of his energy policies.
"Today I'm directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done," Obama said from a pipeline storage yard in Cushing, Okla., the starting point for an oil pipeline that would stretch south to the Gulf Coast.
Obama endorsed construction of the southern line after deciding in January to block construction of the northern section of Keystone XL pipeline, which was supposed to carry oil from Canada to Oklahoma and then on to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
The president said completing the southern section of the pipeline would help increase gas production by speeding the flow of crude reserves in Cushing to refineries along the Gulf.
But Republicans who blasted Obama's initial rejection of the pipeline as evidence that he was stifling domestic oil production and helping to drive up prices at the pump said the president's endorsement of a southern segment of the line would do little or nothing to improve surging gas prices. They mocked the plan that would connect Oklahoma to Texas, but provided no link to the large oil reserves in Canada.
"Oh yeah, he's talking about a pipeline," GOP contender Mitt Romney told a crowd in Arbutus, Md. "He's going to build a pipeline, the southern half of the Keystone Pipeline. It's kind of like the Bridge to Nowhere, in that it doesn't connect to Canada."
Pointing to the fact that oil production has hit an eight-year high under his administration, Obama argued Thursday that the pipeline's southern half is more urgently needed than the northern portion.
"Unfortunately, Congress decided they wanted their own timeline -- not the company, not the experts, but members of Congress who decided this might be a fun political issue," Obama said. "The northern portion of it, we're going to have to review properly to make sure that the health and safety of the American people are protected."
Congressional Republicans issued a memo Thursday saying that Obama's announcement would actually do nothing to hasten completion of the southern portion of the pipeline, which is already slated to begin construction in June.
Meanwhile, environmentalists who applauded the president's decision to block the northern section of the pipeline, pounced on his endorsement of the southern section, calling it a political calculation intended to appease his critics.
"This wrongheaded decision will do nothing to lower gas prices and only helps the richest oil companies get richer," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "While this may have been a political calculation for the administration, it puts American families at risk and only serves to deepen our dependence on oil."