Obama pushes energy policy with renewed pipeline focus

After being pummeled for months by both left and right over the Keystone XL pipeline, the Obama administration is trying to start over — this time with a new name.

In January, the administration turned down an application to build the pipeline from Canada’s tar sands region to the Gulf Coast. TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline, more recently announced plans to go ahead with the southern portion of the route, starting from Cushing, Okla., which White House officials maintain is more urgently needed.

On Thursday, the president plans to issue a memo to federal agencies directing them to make that project, which White House officials are starting to call the Cushing pipeline, a “top priority” in permit decisions, two White House officials said Wednesday.

“The president has been very clear about his support for the building of the so-called Cushing pipeline,” said a third official, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Officials say the southern leg is needed to transport a glut of oil that hits a bottleneck in Cushing, a major oil-storage hub. They attribute the backup to stepped-up domestic oil production, which has hit an eight-year high. By contrast, they say, the more controversial stretch from Canada through the Midwest to Oklahoma will not be needed for several years.

A visit to Cushing is scheduled to be the centerpiece of a two-day trip the president is making to Western states, as he tries to wrest control of the national conversation about rising gasoline prices.

President Obama argues that he is pursuing an “all of the above” energy policy that includes expanded domestic oil production as well as alternative energy. The trip is designed to illustrate that. During a visit to Boulder City on Wednesday, he spoke at the Copper Mountain Solar project, a solar power generating station, a day after his administration announced new tariffs on imported Chinese solar panels.

“If some politicians have their way, there won’t be any more public investments in solar energy,” Obama said of his Republican critics. “If these guys were around when Columbus set sail, they’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society.”

Later in the day, he challenged the GOP contention that he isn’t allowing gas drilling on public lands by appearing at an active pumping site on federal property outside Carlsbad, N.M.

But the energy issue that has been the most persistent line of Republican attack has been Keystone. Republicans have used it to symbolize what they say is the administration’s opposition to domestic oil production and oversensitivity to environmental concerns.

As Obama spoke in Nevada on Wednesday, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney repeated his criticisms to a crowd in Arbutus, Md.

“Oh yeah, he’s talking about a pipeline. He’s going to build a pipeline, the southern half of the Keystone pipeline,” Romney said. “It’s kind of like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ in that it doesn’t connect to Canada.”

Republicans in Congress were equally critical, calling Obama’s Western outing a “tour de farce.”

“There is only one permit that matters for this pipeline, and the president continues to block it,” a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said, referring to the permit needed for a pipeline that would cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

Keystone has been a problem for Obama from both directions. Environmental activists vehemently oppose its construction. For many activists, the ultimate goal is to block development of Canada’s tar sands, which they say would contribute heavily to global warming. But opposition to the pipeline centered on a more limited issue: the claim that the route would endanger environmentally sensitive underground water supplies in Nebraska.

Last year, the White House tried to defer consideration of Keystone until after the election. But in December, Republicans pushed a measure through Congress demanding a decision within 60 days. The administration ruled against the pipeline in January, saying there wasn’t enough time to properly review it, but said TransCanada could reapply.

Even as Republicans insist that Obama plans to kill the pipeline, many environmentalists worry he will approve it if reelected. A group plans to protest during his visit to Ohio State University on Thursday.

The political backdrop against which the debate has played out is the rising price of gasoline. On Wednesday, a new poll of voters in 12 swing states gave some solace to the administration. In the poll, which surveyed 1,424 voters, respondents agreed, 50% to 45%, that Obama “should not be blamed for rising gas prices because there isn’t much the president can do to keep them steady.”

Lisa Mascaro and Neela Banerjee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.