Obama heading to Keystone XL site in Oklahoma

WASHINGTON — 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 TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

WASHINGTON — 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 TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Obama will make a speech at a storage yard in tiny Cushing where the pipes that will be used to build the pipeline to the Gulf Coast are being housed. He’ll also make stops in Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio to tout his energy policies.

The trip comes as the president’s public approval ratings drop almost in concert with soaring pump prices. Republicans blame Obama’s energy policies for rising gas prices and continue to attack him for rejecting Keystone XL in January.

On Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, Republicans sense they’ve found a winning issue just eight months before the presidential election. And so they’ve been relentlessly attacking Obama on gas prices by way of campaign appearances, news releases and social media.

“Jump in gas prices is hurting economic recovery, report says,” John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, tweeted on Monday, linking to a Los Angeles Times piece.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, meantime, is calling on Obama to fire “the gas hike trio” — three administration officials who advocate the development of renewable sources of energy.

Conspiracy theorists on the right speculate those officials — Steven Chu, Lisa Jackson and Ken Salazar — are delighted by high gas prices because they might force Americans to end their dependence on oil.

The U.S. average price for a gallon of gasoline rose for the 10th straight day on Monday to $3.842, which would amount to just slightly over a dollar a litre in Canada. That’s about 6.6 per cent below the record American high of $4.114 in July 2008, when George W. Bush was still in office.

At the daily media briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney brushed off suggestions that Obama’s trek west was nothing more than a publicity stunt aimed at propping up his sagging poll numbers.

He added Americans aren’t fooled by Republicans on the campaign trail who claim they could lower gas prices. Newt Gingrich, in particular, has vowed to bring the price of gas below $2.50 a gallon.

“Most Americans understand that that’s baloney,” Carney said.

“It’s not plausible. It’s laughable as policy. Drill, drill, drill will not get you anywhere because if it could, then the fact that we’ve increased oil and gas production in this country would have resulted in a decrease in prices at the pump, not an increase.”

He added Obama isn’t worried about whether he’s being held personally responsible for rising gas prices.

“The president’s not concerned about who gets the blame,” he said. “The president’s concerned about making sure we have the right policies to deal with this challenge for the long term.”

Cushing is the starting point for the southern half of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. 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,” the White House said in a statement.

North Dakota, in particular, is currently 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 (TSX:TRP) 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 say it’s ironic Obama’s travelling to Oklahoma to laud the pipeline when he’s yet to give the green light to the entire Keystone XL project. The $7.6 billion 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.”

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.

After his Thursday appearance in Cushing, Obama will visit energy-related research facilities at Ohio State University in Columbus.