By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans should think beyond their support of the Keystone XL pipeline for other ways to encourage U.S. energy production, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a potential 2016 White House contender and Tea Party favorite, said on Monday.
Cruz, who has been criticized by some Republicans for the role he played in last year's government shutdown battle, appeared to be trying to expand his focus beyond U.S. government debt and problems with President Obama's healthcare law to take on energy as a signature issue.
"As much as we need to approve the Keystone pipeline, we need to think far broader than that," Cruz said in a speech to a conservative policy summit organized by Heritage Action, political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
The senator from the oil-producing state of Texas said he would soon introduce legislation "to prevent the federal government from stopping the energy renaissance that is blossoming across the country."
Domestic U.S. crude production is at a 25-year high, thanks mainly to such technological advances as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," and horizontal drilling.
Outlining his proposals, Cruz listed some that were reminiscent of talking points of other Republicans, such as opening up offshore areas to oil exploration.
But Cruz waded into more controversial territory when he urged a lifting of the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, an issue that divides Republicans.
Cruz also pushed for preventing federal restrictions on fracking; expanding energy development on federal land; ending EPA regulations that he said amounted to a "war on coal," and improving domestic oil refinery capacity.
It was unclear how far he would be able to advance any of his ideas in a Democratic-run U.S. Senate. However, Cruz has shown himself to be able to expand his influence beyond that of the average freshman senator.
Last year, along with outside groups like Heritage Action, Cruz was a prime mover in Republican calls for changes in President Obama's healthcare law, a battle with Democrats that led to a 16-day government shutdown. However, when the government reopened the law was untouched.
The U.S. State Department recently concluded that the Keystone pipeline would not spur Canadian oil sands development or unduly worsen climate change. President Obama has made clear he will make the ultimate call on whether to approve TransCanada Corp's plan to build a line that would carry up to 830,0000 barrels per day of oil sands crude from Western Canada and light, sweet crude from North Dakota to oil refiners in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cruz prompted laughter from his heavily conservative audience when he said environmental activists should love the Keystone pipeline, because pipelines are an environmentally safer way to transport oil than by tankers, which can lead to spills.
"If you are a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist, you should love the Keystone pipeline," Cruz said.
Cruz also poked fun at former President Jimmy Carter, who gave a speech in 1977 warning that oil and gas supplies were running out. "I am pretty sure every word in the entire speech was wrong," Cruz said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Gregorio)