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A Sooner snubbing?

In his first presidential visit to Oklahoma, Barack Obama delivered a speech on energy to a crowd largely devoid of state officials.

Clifton Adcock March 28th, 2012

A palpable energy ran through the crowd at the Ripley High School parking lot, despite the cold and rainy weather that hung overhead.

It was March 22, and several hundred people were waiting for a bus to take them to a muddy location in the Payne County countryside that soon would play host to the leader of the free world.

Most were state Democratic movers and shakers: some old-guard stalwarts such as former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and some new, such as freshman state Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman. But they all seemed excited, almost giddy, as they took photos of one another after arriving at the location President Barack Obama would deliver his speech. They waited for about an hour in the yard filled with row upon row of stacked rust-red metal pipeline.

Obama’s visit last week to deeply “red” Oklahoma was the first of his presidency.

By then, a mini-controversy already was brewing. None of the state’s top leaders had met the president when he arrived at Tinker Air Force Base the night before. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin had planned a family trip to Puerto Rico prior to being officially notified about Obama’s visit, and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb was at a conference in Washington, D.C. Spokespeople for House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman said the Republican legislative leaders had not been invited by the White House.

Besides several of the state’s top Democrats, few other Oklahoma officeholders attended Obama’s arrival or speech. Fallin’s office did issue a statement, however, that said the governor was pleased with the president’s visit to Oklahoma, but also blamed him for blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.

That project seeks to move oil through pipeline stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The president has voiced support for the southern leg of the pipeline, which will link Oklahoma to Texas.

Presidential treatment

Oklahoma state government’s tepid reception for the president prompted criticism from several state legislators, including a conservative Republican.

“As an Oklahoman, I am embarrassed by the way we did not welcome to our state the President of the United States of America,” state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, wrote on his Facebook page. “This is no way to treat the President. I do not care how one feels about the man: he is still our President and should be treated as such.”

After arriving at Tinker in Midwest City, Obama spent the night at a hotel in downtown Oklahoma City before heading the next morning to TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline yard outside Cushing. Standing before an expanse of pipes, Obama delivered remarks on his “all of the above” energy policy to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil. It was part of a four-state tour to explain his energy agenda.

“I love you, Mr. President!” one audience member shouted as Obama took the stage.

“I love you back,” Obama replied before beginning his remarks.

But not everyone on-hand was thrilled with Obama’s plan, or track record. In Cushing, there were several protestors: some liberal, upset over the president’s support of the southern leg of Keystone; and some conservative, equally upset about his denial of the would-be northern leg.

“Drill, baby, drill” read one sign along the president’s motorcade route. “Stop Keystone,” read another.

Obama told his audience that the northern leg hit a snag because of concerns it would adversely impact drinking water in Nebraska. He blamed Congress for politicizing the issue and scuttling the possibility of a relatively quick resolution.

“So to be extra careful that the construction of the pipeline in an area like that wouldn’t put the health and safety of the American people at risk, our experts said that we needed a certain amount of time to review the project,” Obama said.

Fast track

Obama also announced that he was ordering his administration to expedite the southern leg of the pipeline. Critics dismissed the move as political theater, contending that plans already are moving forward without problems. Still, Keystone officials said they were encouraged by the president’s remarks, and that they believe Obama supports the pipeline.

below Robert Jones of TransCanada

Once construction to the Gulf of Mexico begins, it should take around a year to complete, said Robert Jones, vice president of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project. He said it will have an initial capacity of between 500,000 and 700,000 barrels of oil a day, expanding to 830,000 once the northern leg is constructed.

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“Obviously, I’m very happy to hear the president’s comments,” Jones said. “We’re getting good cooperation.”

After making his remarks, Obama shook a few hands in the crowd and made small talk. A woman told him she had been born in the same Hawaii hospital as he.

The president grinned and joked, “Do you have your birth certificate?”

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