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Obama straddles middle in touting homegrown oil, gas Add to ...

U.S. President Barack Obama is stealing a page from the Republicans’ energy script, as he endorses expanded oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and promotes the controversial extraction of natural gas from shale rock.

Looking to blunt Republican attacks on his energy policy – including the temporary rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada – Mr. Obama has followed this week’s State of the Union address with a campaign-style swing through the West Thursday, in which he announced new opportunities for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and promoted measures to expand the production and use of natural gas.

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“We need an all-out, all-in, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every source of American energy – a strategy that is cleaner and cheaper and full of new jobs,” he told workers at a UPS fueling depot in Colorado.

The Democratic President has been increasingly under fire from Republicans about his energy policy, as they criticize him for failing to open up more federal land to drilling, for imposing onerous regulations on producers and for derailing TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone pipeline. Republicans argue the pipeline would create thousands of badly needed construction jobs over two years and enhance energy security by bringing a greater supply of oil-sands crude to U.S. refineries.

On the night of his primary victory in South Carolina last week, for example, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich slammed the Keystone decision, saying the Keystone delay is encouraging Canada to build a pipeline to the West Coast to allow for oil exports to Asian markets.

Mr. Obama is looking to occupy the middle ground, as one who encourages domestic oil and gas production but not at all costs.

In a politically charged State of the Union address on Tuesday, he took some credit for growing domestic production of oil and gas in the United States. But he also promoted policies that would boost renewable energy and fuel efficiency, neither of which has much support among Republicans either in Congress or on the campaign trail.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama announced plans to extend a “natural-gas corridor” that would allow gas-powered trucks to refuel during inter-city runs, and again urged Congress to pass incentives for companies to convert from diesel to natural gas.

“The President has long been a strong supporter of an all-of-the-above approach to energy,” said Dan Weiss, senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington. “Many of his political opponents mouth those words but the reality is that their all-of-the-above approach really means, ‘Drill, baby, drill.’”

But Republicans and industry supporters say Mr. Obama’s campaign-like language supporting the oil and gas development does not match his administration’s record.

“If President Obama is going to use Republican energy talking points, he should also use some of our job-creating policies to open new areas, expand access and increase American energy production,” Doc Hastings, the Republican chair of the House natural resources committee, said in a release Thursday.“

This administration’s lofty rhetoric on increased American energy productions do not match up with their job-destroying actions that have blocked new energy production on federal lands and waters.”

Republican critics note the lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico is not so much opening a new area as completing a five-year drilling plan initiated by George W. Bush’s administration. That plan was put on hold in 2010 after BP’s devastating blowout that spewed oil into the gulf for two months.

In his Colorado speech, Mr. Obama proudly noted that the U.S. is now producing more oil than it has in eight years, and is less dependent on imported oil than it has been in 16 years. However, while domestic production has climbed, American oil demand has slumped under the twin pressures of higher pump prices and economic recession.

The President is particularly enthusiastic about the North American shale-gas boom, which has brought vast new supplies to the market and sent prices plunging to 10-year lows.

But shale-gas development has sparked concerns across the country about potential threats to ground water.

Some environmental groups worry that Mr. Obama is too supportive of oil and gas production, given the environmental concerns that accompany deep-water drilling and industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – that shoots chemically-treated water into shale-rock formations to extract natural gas.

New York State has had a de facto moratorium on fracking, while there is widespread opposition in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the gas boom is in early stages.

The Obama administration will require companies operating on federal lands to publish a list of the chemicals that they use in the fracking process. But that would only scratch the surface of concerns around the intensive drilling technique. The Environmental Protection Agency has undertaken a study of the risks of shale-gas drilling, which is not due to be completed until next year.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the U.S. government has to step in the regulate the gas drillers, who are now governed by state rules.

In a blog post, Ms. Beinecke applauded Mr. Obama’s announcement on disclosure of fracking chemicals, but added that “much more needs to be done.”

“We need to hold industry to safety standards, set sensitive places off limits and keep contaminants out of our air and water,” she said.

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