President Obama visits the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing,… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Columbus, Ohio — President Obama traveled to one of the nation's oil transportation hubs, offering what administration officials hope voters will see as a centrist alternative to the polarized debate over the Keystone XL pipeline — and quickly drew fire from activists on both sides.
Earlier this year, Obama deferred the building of a pipeline from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf Coast through environmentally sensitive parts of the Midwest. On Thursday, he said his administration would expedite construction of the southern part of the route, starting in Cushing, Okla.
Obama has tried to strike a middle position on energy issues between Republican advocates of stepped-up drilling and environmentalists who push for a fast switch from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy. His administration's policy is "all of the above," Obama often says, backing oil production, alternative energy and increased efficiency.
That stance has opened him to attack from both sides, as was quickly apparent with the announcement that the administration would treat the route from Cushing to Port Arthur, Texas, as a "national priority."
"Today I've come to Cushing, an oil town, because producing more oil and gas here at home has been and will continue to be a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy," Obama said, speaking to a crowd of pipe workers, residents and officials from TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline.
A new pipeline running south from Cushing is needed because "there's a bottleneck right here because we can't get enough of the oil to our refineries fast enough," he said, taking credit for an upturn in domestic oil production which has the industry pumping more than at any time in the last eight years.
But neither environmentalists nor Republican backers of more oil drilling want to drop the issue of the full Keystone pipeline, which has become a potent symbol for both sides. Both say they fear what Obama might do if reelected. Republicans predict he would kill the pipeline outright, while some environmentalists fear he will approve the Canadian route once election pressures are gone.
Republicans repeated their charge that Obama's energy policies had driven up gas prices and cost Americans jobs.
"The president now says he supports the Republican 'all of the above' energy strategy for our country," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "But for three years his administration has made every effort to block, delay and restrict new energy production in our country."
Industry experts have said the rise in gasoline prices is largely due to the jump in crude oil prices, which are set on a global market in which U.S. production plays only a minor role. But Boehner and other Republican leaders say that Obama deserves blame for not pushing domestic production hard enough.
A new Gallup poll shows that 57% of Americans back construction of the Keystone pipeline, though only 20% were following the issue closely.
"We now hope he will speed up the approval of the entire pipeline," said American Petroleum Institute Executive Vice President Marty Durbin. "Supply matters when it comes to the price of gasoline. Keystone XL would bring up to 830,000 additional barrels of oil to the market every day."
That day when hundreds of thousands of barrels arrive from Canada is at least a decade away, however, and much of the gasoline refined from the Canadian oil would probably be exported, industry analysts say.
Some environmental groups, which strongly oppose Keystone, lashed out at Obama as well. One group issued a statement calling the decision to expedite the Cushing-to-Texas leg of the pipeline a "slap in the face to young voters across the country" who had supported Obama in 2008.
Opponents of Keystone have focused considerable attention on the dangers that the northern part of the pipeline could pose to underground water supplies in the Great Plains. But some oppose the southern part of the line as well because they believe that any development of Canada's tar sands would worsen global warming. The pipeline from Cushing to Texas ultimately could be used to transport Canadian oil from the tar sands, they say.
Environmental opposition was on display later in the day as Obama spoke here at Ohio State University in Columbus. His visit was designed to showcase the administration's support for fuel efficiency, a major priority for environmental groups.
Obama toured a garage where engineering students were working on electric and eco-cars, but when he spoke later in a school gym, he had to interrupt his talk to quiet a man who kept shouting about more drilling for oil.
A few minutes later, a group of about five or 10 young voices took up another chant: "Stop the pipeline!"
Parsons reported from Cushing, Okla., and Columbus, Ohio; and Banerjee from Washington.