By Jeff Mason
BOULDER CITY, Nevada (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will direct federal agencies on Thursday to speed approvals of one portion of the controversial Keystone XL 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.
Republicans, who have made the pipeline a key issue in the presidential election, called the announcement a stunt.
Suffering from voter anger over high gasoline prices, Obama used a stop at a huge solar panel facility in Nevada on Wednesday to accuse his rivals of ignoring renewable fuels that could help wean the United States off foreign oil.
He then flew to New Mexico to defend his administration's record on drilling, standing in front of an oil rig for a brief speech to promote an "all of the above" energy strategy that Republicans deride.
"We're drilling all over the place," Obama said. "That's one of the reasons we've been able to reduce our dependence on foreign oil every year since I took office."
Republicans cite Obama's support for a now bankrupt solar panel company, steadily rising gasoline prices and the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada as evidence that his energy policies are not working.
On Thursday, the president will tackle critics of his decision to block the Keystone pipeline head on, going to Cushing, Oklahoma, where TransCanada Corp plans to begin building 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.
Republicans said the move was not enough.
"It's kind of like the Bridge to Nowhere in that it doesn't connect to Canada," Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said, referring to the Cushing portion of the pipeline.
"If (Obama's) poll numbers go a little lower of course we'll be able to get the other half of it done. So let's get those poll numbers down so we can get our pipeline and get some energy in here."
Romney and fellow Republican presidential candidates 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 November 6.
The phrase "drill, baby, drill" became a popular Republican rallying cry during the 2008 presidential campaign.
PHOTO-OP, POLITICAL DIVIDE
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.
"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."
Permits aside, 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 David Konisky, a professor 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."
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 there 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.
His second stop outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, is an area with more than 70 active drilling rigs.
After going to Oklahoma on Thursday, Obama finishes his trip in Ohio - a critical battleground state in the November election - at a university that does advanced energy research.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Todd Eastham)