Obama heading to Keystone XL Oklahoma site
Recent praise for southern segment signals attitude shift
As his Republican foes assail him for high gas prices, U.S. President Barack Obama heads west this week in a jaunt that will take him to the Oklahoma town that's the southern starting point of Calgary-based TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Obama is travelling to tiny Cushing — as well as making stops in Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio — to promote and defend his energy policies as prices at the pump continue to soar while his public approval ratings drop in response.
Cushing is the starting point for the southern half of the Keystone XL pipeline.
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That segment "will transport oil from Cushing to the Gulf of Mexico, which will help address the bottleneck of oil that has resulted in large part from increased domestic oil production in the Midwest," said a White House statement.
North Dakota, indeed, is in the throes of a major oil boom thanks to the discovery of the so-called Bakken Shale.
Millions of barrels of unrefined crude are sitting in storage facilities in the state, but there's a lack of pipeline capacity to carry it to Gulf Coast refineries and a limited number of rail cars that can transport the oil south.
Obama's recent praise of TransCanada's decision to proceed with the construction of the southern segment of the pipeline signalled a shift in attitude from the White House after it rejected the pipeline outright in January.
Not surprisingly, Republicans have accused Obama of trying to defuse any political damage from his pipeline decision by travelling to Oklahoma as they also point out the president has yet to give the green light to the entire Keystone XL project.
The $7.6 billion US pipeline would stretch from Alberta's oilsands through six U.S. states to the Gulf Coast.
"Unfortunately, we know his visit is little more than a campaign stop in an attempt to put a favourable spin on his dismal energy record, because current gas prices threaten his job," Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe said in a statement.
Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, agreed.
"This president has shut down everything when it comes down to energy independence in this country," Priebus said over the weekend on CBS's "Face The Nation."
"He's talking on both sides of his mouth."
Environmentalists, meantime, have expressed disappointment that Obama is all but blessing the pipeline during his stop in Oklahoma.
"This is a calculated slap, and it stings," tweeted environmentalist Bill McKibben, who spearheaded high-profile White House protests against the proposed pipeline last summer.
"Solomon proposed splitting the baby — Obama always actually tries to do it."
Obama's chief strategist defended the president.
"This president has approved dozens of pipelines," David Axelrod said on the weekend. "So he's certainly not hostile to transporting oil but we have to do it in an appropriate way."
The U.S. State Department has yet to make a decision on the entire pipeline, saying it needs more time to conduct a thorough environmental review of a new route around an environmentally sensitive aquifer in Nebraska. State department officials are assessing the project because it crosses an international border.
In November, under mounting pressure from environmentalists, the State Department punted making a decision on Keystone until after this year's presidential election, citing concerns about the risks posed to the aquifer.
Pipeline proponents cried foul, saying it was a cynical political move aimed at improving Obama's chances of re-election. Republicans then held the administration's feet to the fire, successfully inserting pipeline provisions into payroll tax cut legislation in late December.
Within a month, facing a mid-February deadline imposed by that measure, Obama rejected TransCanada's existing permit outright, saying there wasn't enough time to thoroughly review a new route before giving it the green light.
But Obama also assured Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the decision was not a reflection of the pipeline's merits, but was merely necessitated by Republican pressure tactics. He welcomed TransCanada to propose another route.
The White House says the goal of Obama's travels this week is to promote the president's multi-tiered, "all-of-the-above" approach to energy policy that involves advocating for the development of new sources of energy, domestic oil and gas production and rigorous new fuel efficiency standards.
In Nevada's Boulder City, the president will visit a solar energy facility before travelling to oil and gas production fields in New Mexico.
On Thursday in Cushing, Obama will make a speech at a storage yard that's holding pipes to be used to build the pipeline. He'll then visit energy-related research facilities at Ohio State University in Columbus.