Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today defended President Obama's record on the environment amid deepening criticism from green allies over a 2008 campaign promise to "end the tyranny of oil."
"It's like moving the Titanic," Salazar said of the administration's effort to work with Congress to build a "new energy framework."
"Notwithstanding that, we have made a lot of progress," he said. "As a U.S. senator, I remember using the statistic of our imports of 70 percent of oil from other countries. Today, our imports are down to less than 50 percent, the last figure I saw."
Salazar said Obama has moved the U.S. out of the "Hummer Age" -- referring to the gas-guzzing General Motors-made SUV -- by imposing sweeping new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and promoting new technologies that allow some cars and trucks to run solely on renewable energy.
"I think that when the environmental community looks at what it is we've done to transform the energy reality, the energy future of the United States, I think they ought to say we've done a pretty good job," he said.
The comments came as the administration tangles with environmental activists over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would run from Canada to the Texas gulf coast.
A coalition of groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today to block land-clearing for the project, which the State Department has not yet approved but which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she's "inclined" to do. They have also alleged bias and corruption in the administration's vetting process for the deal, charges that officials deny.
The issue has even spilled onto the campaign trail, when hecklers interrupted Obama during a St. Louis fundraiser Tuesday night asking, "Will you stop the pipeline?" Obama continued undeterred except to say, "We've got a couple of people here who are concerned about the environment."
Critics say the issue is shaping up to be the clearest test of Obama's commitment to environmental policy after a string of decisions by his administration deeply opposed by green allies.
This week, the administration upheld 500 leases for drilling in the Arctic Ocean, while earlier this month it shelved new EPA standards for ozone emissions, which Obama said imposed undue regulatory burdens.
"I think I speak for many people when I say we want the Obama of 2008 back, the one that galvanized this country," said Rebecca Tarbotten, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, an advocacy group.
"President Obama has a chance to assure his supporters that he still intends to keep his promises on climate and energy," she said. "I know that Congress has really stood in his way already up until this point, but they're not between him and this decision on the Keystone XL pipeline."
Many Republicans and oil industry groups support the pipeline, saying construction will create American jobs and lead to greater access to oil supplies for U.S. markets.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, however, the pipeline deal smells of "crony capitalism."
"What we've seen throughout this public process is a pattern of manipulation, distortion and a kind of crony capitalism that we grew to expect from Bush and Cheney, not this administration," he said. "We hoped for something different from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and we still do."
The administration is holding a public hearing on the pipeline on Friday. Clinton is expected to rule on the matter before the end of the year. It's unclear whether or not Obama will get directly involved.