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President Obama in New Mexico to visit oil fields

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MALJAMAR, N.M. — President Barack Obama traveled to the outskirts of a no-stop-light town in solid Republican territory Wednesday evening to promote his administration's commitment to continued increases in domestic oil and gas development.

Flanked by an idle oil pumpjack on federal lands in southeastern New Mexico's Permian Basin, Obama told a crowd gathered in a cold wind that his administration has opened millions of acres of public lands in 23 states to production, has increased access to potential offshore resources by 75 percent and recently approved drilling of a field in the Gulf of Mexico that has the potential to produce 400 million barrels of oil.

"If you hear anybody on TV saying that somehow we are against drilling for oil, then you'll know that they either don't know what they are talking about or they are not telling you the truth," he said. "We are drilling all over the place."

The president, who was accompanied by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, also reiterated his commitment to bringing down gas prices through an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that includes an increased focus on renewable energies.

But he said there is "no connection between the amount of oil and gas we drill in this country and the price of gas" because global demands from countries like China are behind the rising prices.

Republicans jumped on the visit to the state, which is one of a handful of key swing states in the November election, putting out statements blaming what they called his failed energy policies for high gas prices.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and others disputed Obama's assertion that his policies have increased production on federal lands.

"While oil production on private lands has increased, according to the Institute of Energy Research, oil production on federal land was down 11% in 2011," Pearce said.

Tim Wigley, president of Western Energy Alliance, said Obama's "bureaucracies and broken policies are making energy development in the West increasingly difficult, time consuming, and cost prohibitive."

Obama made the stop in New Mexico en route from a tour of the nation's largest solar plant in Boulder, Nev., to the site of future oil pipeline Oklahoma.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Roswell Mayor Del Jurney greeted the president when Air Force One landed in Roswell about 5:20 p.m. He then boarded Marine One and headed toward the oil fields outside the town of Maljamar, population 38.

Protesters were also waiting for the president, some carrying signs opposing his administration's consideration of listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. The oil and gas industry fears such a designation could curtail development.

"Lizards don't pay taxes," read one sign held up by protesters gathered at the Roswell airport Wednesday afternoon. "Saving a lizard will starve a child," read another.

Complaints about a slow permitting process were also being echoed in advance of Obama's visit to wells on federal lands outside of Maljamar.

At lunchtime, oil field workers were joined by White House officials in suits and ties at the town's lone restaurant, Linda's Grill.

Maljamar resident Bill Gideon, 64-year-old husband to the grill's namesake, sat there about an hour before grabbing a meal and going back to work. He owns L&B Trucking and his six trucks haul piping for drilling to oil rig sites all over the region. The economy is OK, he said, and people have jobs, but it could be busier.

Companies have moved rig operations west because "the permits weren't coming fast enough, it was slow," Gideon said.

His lunch companion, Wade Hood, is in the water delivery business, piping it to rig sites for use in hydraulic fracking. The slow permitting trickles back, he said.

"When they start slowing down the process, the economy goes down," Hood said.

Still, Sam Cobb, the mayor of nearby Hobbs, said he was excited about the president's visit.

"We are anxious to show the president and his staff what we do in this part of the state, and we really want to be part of getting America energy independent," he said. "We want to show the president that we are ready, willing and able ... and hope we can work with the federal government in reducing barriers to achieve (that) goal."

Maljamar is about 280 miles southeast of Albuquerque near the Texas border.

According to the menu at Linda's Grill, "William Mitchell, president of Maljamar Oil & Gas Company, which brought the first oil well to southeastern New Mexico in 1926, reportedly named the town for his three children, Malcolm, Janet and Margaret."