Subtlety is not the aim of political stagecraft. When Barack Obama stands next to a stack of unassembled pipelines in Oklahoma on Thursday the message will be clear: “I am not an enemy of oil.”
The US president is scheduled to visit a construction staging area belonging to TransCanada, whose Keystone XL pipeline project was rejected by the White House in January. He is expected to push for speedy approval for a truncated version of the project running from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico.
The stakes are high for both the oil industry and Mr Obama. Even with US crude oil production at its highest in almost a decade, Mr Obama is getting serious election-year heat as petrol prices near $4 a gallon.
Building TransCanada’s Gulf Coast project from Cushing to Texas is also important to oil producers in the central US, where a drilling renaissance has depressed local crude prices.
In December I visited Cushing, near the site of the planned presidential visit and along the route of both Keystone XL and the original Keystone, which is already flowing. Mr Obama could hardly have picked a better backdrop.
The air has the ancient scent of crude oil. All along the straight roads north and south of town are signs warning not to dig, because the soil holds what is probably the nation’s densest tangle of pipelines.
Signs at Main Street petrol stations advertise that the fuel for sale is “ethanol free” – a blasphemy in corn-growing states such as Iowa. The glare of welders’ torches is everywhere, adding to crude oil tank capacity that is now more than 66m barrels.
Cushing is the delivery point for New York-traded crude oil futures. The place feels remote but its cosmopolitan links are quickly revealed. On a level mound outside town are the white tanks of Gavilon, the trading house whose owners include New York investment fund Ospraie and Soros Fund Management.
The local chamber of commerce director showed me a poster for the annual town barbecue cookout, in which employees from oil groups including Swiss trading house Mercuria compete to smoke the finest ribs.
Oklahoma is not a state Mr Obama will win this autumn. The state Republican party has blasted his visit, saying: “It is outrageous that President Obama has the gall to tout a pipeline that he alone is responsible for killing.”
Mr Obama killed Keystone XL under a tight deadline set by a Republican-backed law. The rejection was a victory for environmentalists concerned the pipeline will uncork more carbon-intensive crude from Canada’s oil sands.
The oil companies and their backers may have the last laugh. TransCanada’s existing 590,000 barrels a day Keystone line already brings Canadian oil to Cushing. Signs flagging the line dot the perimeter of the Cushing airport.
Now, fast-track approval of the new TransCanada Gulf Coast project will allow that crude to flow all the way to the Texas coast, where refineries can process 4m b/d. The reversal of another line, Seaway, to run from Cushing to Texas this year will also bring Canadian oil to the Gulf.
Having pleased environmentalists in January, Mr Obama can now embrace Oklahoma oilmen with a straight face.
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