The president, shown giving his State of the Union address in January, is… (Saul Loeb / European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama plans to set off Wednesday on a Western tour passing through one of the reddest states in the union, where he will try to turn the Keystone pipeline story into a positive tale about his overall energy policy.
On the way to Oklahoma — the starting point of the southern half of the controversial pipeline — Obama plans to highlight the approval of dozens of oil pipelines during his time in office.
Although the full Keystone line from Canada to Texas failed to get a permit earlier this year, the company is moving forward with the southern portion. Obama is scheduled to speak Thursday in Cushing, Okla., at a storage yard filled with pipes intended for the construction.
To Republicans, Keystone's difficulties have come to represent over-regulation and opposition to progress.
The president's tour is meant to assure Americans that he is taking their concerns about rising gas prices seriously even though officials — and most energy experts — say there isn't much he can do about them in the short term.
The trip comes as the national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline hovers somewhere near $3.85, an increase of almost 17% this year, with even higher prices on the West Coast. Republican critics pin the responsibility on Obama, accusing him of depressing U.S. production of oil on federal and private lands in favor of bolstering alternative energy.
The White House hopes to turn talk of fluctuating gas prices into a larger conversation about America's energy future.
Obama also plans to travel Wednesday and Thursday through three swing states in a tour designed to highlight various pieces of his "all-of-the-above" approach to supplying domestic energy needs. The solution to the country's energy problems, Obama will argue, is to reduce reliance on foreign oil by increasing domestic production as well as by boosting fuel efficiency and promoting alternative energy sources.
Obama's arguments have some merit, said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Unfortunately, rather than having a reasoned conversation about longer-term energy policy, all the political focus these days seems to revolve around nothing but gasoline prices."
Some polls indicate that Americans view developing alternative energy sources as a higher priority than expanding domestic fossil fuel production. But those polls also show that the gap has been closing over the last year.
Obama's tour begins in Boulder City, Nev., with a visit to the largest photovoltaic plant in the country. The Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility has nearly a million solar panels that generate power for some 17,000 homes. There, the president plans to argue for the importance of diversifying the country's "energy portfolio," an administration official said.
Later that day, he plans to visit oil and gas production fields outside Carlsbad, N.M., to challenge Republican criticism that the administration has been hostile to drilling on federal lands.
Drilling dipped last year, but the industry is still using less than half of the 38 million acres of public lands it is leasing, officials note.
Perhaps the toughest sales pitch of the week will come Thursday as Obama stands before the pipes in Cushing to talk about building infrastructure like the Keystone pipeline — designed, as a White House official put it, to address the "bottleneck" of oil created by increased oil production in the Midwest.
By talking about the bottleneck, administration officials hope to put the emphasis back on the increase in domestic oil production since 2009. Production in the U.S. is at an eight-year high, officials say.
"I think we can confidently say that this has been a priority and a focus of this administration from Day 1," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Obama's task now is to get voters to see it that way.