To hear the White House tell it, Barack Obama might be the most pipeline-friendly president ever to occupy the Oval Office.
In advance of Obama's March 22 visit to Cushing, Okla, the White House released a fact sheet detailing the president's support for oil pipeline projects. "The need for pipeline infrastructure is urgent, because rising American oil production is outpacing the capacity of pipelines to deliver oil to refineries," the White House wrote. "It is critical that we make pipeline infrastructure a top priority."
When the president appeared in Cushing, White House image-makers positioned him in front of huge stockpiles of pipe -- tons and tons of pipe. Message: Obama loves pipelines. "Under my administration," the president said, "we've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some."
But Obama wasn't in Cushing because he has approved so much new pipeline. He was there because he is facing bipartisan opposition, in Congress and across the country, for blocking the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring about 700,000 barrels of oil from Canada to refineries in Texas every day, creating thousands of new jobs in the process. The opposition appears to be growing, and there's good reason to believe Obama will be forced to reverse himself in the next few months.
A new Gallup poll shows that 57 percent of Americans say the government should approve building Keystone. That number includes 81 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of independents and 44 percent (a plurality) of Democrats. The only good news for the White House is that most Americans aren't following the issue very closely, at least not yet.
In Cushing, the president announced he will expedite approval of the relatively short southern portion of the Keystone project, known as the Cushing pipeline, which will take oil that is already in Oklahoma down to the Texas refineries. "I'm directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority," Obama said.
But Republicans quickly pointed out that a) presidential approval wasn't necessary for that portion of the pipeline, since it is all domestic, and b) it was Obama's agencies that were responsible for the red tape and bureaucratic hurdles in the first place. "He's out in Oklahoma trying to take credit for a part of the pipeline that doesn't even require his approval," said House Speaker John Boehner.
The GOP has also pointed out that there are many, many pipelines already crisscrossing the United States, including some that cross the Canadian border. In fact, Republicans say, Obama is the first president to deny a permit for a cross-border pipeline.
In addition, GOP lawmakers cite maps showing there are already pipelines over the Ogallala Aquifer, the giant underground water table that stretches below Nebraska and several other heartland states and is the reason environmentalists cite for opposing the Keystone project. "America either should install Keystone XL, with all of its benefits, or -- if such pipelines really are as dangerous as Democrats argue -- yank out all these pipelines that could destroy Ogallala," writes conservative commentator Deroy Murdock, who has argued strongly in favor of the pipeline.
Recently, Senate Republicans forced a vote on a proposal to approve Keystone. The final vote was 56 - 42, with 11 Democrats breaking with the president to vote in favor of the pipeline. The only reason it didn't pass was that the Democratic leadership filibustered the measure, requiring 60 votes for passage. (Liberal critics of the filibuster, so angry when Republicans used it to block Democratic measures, were uncharacteristically silent after the vote.)
If Obama has already lost 11 Democratic votes, with the election still several months away, it's likely he is going to lose more in the future. "Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the last vote that the issue would not be going away," says a Senate GOP source. "There is strong bipartisan support, and we'll have more shots at this."
In coming months, Republicans can likely count on the support of more and more Americans who are more and more angry about rising gas prices. As the general election campaign begins, Obama will face determined arguments from Republicans that in his desire to promote green energy -- Obama will hear the word "Solyndra" many, many times this fall -- he is standing in the way of making America more self-sufficient in oil and gas. It won't matter how many photo-ops he stages in front of piles of pipes. In the end, he'll have to say yes to Keystone.