President Obama hits the road this week to try to shake off two persistent political liabilities — Keystone XL and Solyndra — and their ongoing damage to his re-election hopes.
Instead of shying away from these two political hot potatoes, Mr. Obama seems determined to try to change the public’s mind about them — or at least explain how they fit into his stated “all of the above” approach to energy.
It won’t be an easy task, especially with voters worried that rising gas prices could thwart the economic recovery and political opponents charging that Mr. Obama is more committed to developing clean-energy alternatives in the long term than trying to expand drilling and increase supply immediately.
The president on Wednesday and Thursday will travel to three presidential battleground states — Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio — as well as the Republican stronghold of Oklahoma.
He will begin his tour in Nevada, looking to undo some of the damage created by Solyndra, the now-bankrupt California solar company that got $535 million in Energy Department loan guarantees from the administration. He plans to visit the Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility in Boulder City, which the White House says is the country’s largest photovoltaic plant — the same type of energy technology Solyndra designed and manufactured.
But his decision to head to the scarlet-red state of Oklahoma, where he plans to tout the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, may be the most politically risky.
Mr. Obama plans to deliver remarks Thursday at a storage yard for pipes that will be used for the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would help move a glut of U.S. oil stored in Cushing, Okla., down to Texas refineries.
The president has taken a political beating since January for blocking Republican attempts to speed up approval for the broader 1,700-mile project from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, but when TransCanada moved ahead with the partial project, the White House welcomed the move and now plans to sing its praises and align the president with the project.
“The president has approved dozens of pipelines,” Mr. Obama’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, referring to the trip to Oklahoma. “So, he’s certainly not hostile to transporting oil, but we have to do it in an appropriate way.”
But critics on the left and right said Mr. Obama’s travel this week is a transparent political attempt to have it both ways and may end up alienating more people than it assures.
“Pres. Off to Oklahoma to celebrate southern leg of keystone — this is a calculated slap, and stings,” tweeted environmentalist Bill McKibben, who helped lead protests against the proposed pipeline. “Solomon proposed splitting the baby — Obama always actually tries to do it.”
Cindy Schild, a senior manager at the American Petroleum Institute, said the partial pipeline would produce just 4,000 immediate jobs compared to the 20,000 for the full project, and API CEO Jack Gerard told reporters Tuesday that the Obama administration needs a reality check.
“The administration says it’s already doing a good enough job promoting oil and natural gas development,” Mr. Gerard said. “Check the numbers, it says. We did, and they show oil and natural gas production on federal lands and waters has lagged behind development on private and state lands. In fact, production in federal areas has trended down between the administration’s first year in office, 2009, and last year, 2011.”
Right on cue, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist group, sent out a memo Tuesday blasting the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline ahead of the president’s trip.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking a southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline project isn’t about tar sands. It is,” the memo warned. “And splitting the tar sands pipeline project in half … doesn’t make it any better.”