WASHINGTON - TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline was front and centre on the American political stage on Thursday as both U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney extolled the virtues of the Canadian project.
"It's a fact that we've approved dozens of new pipelines, including from Canada," Obama said in prepared remarks to a community college in Nashua, N.H., on domestic energy production.
"Just this week, we announced that we'll do whatever we can to help speed the construction of a pipeline in Oklahoma that will relieve a bottleneck of oil that needs to get to the Gulf – something that will help create jobs and encourage more production."
The Obama administration, indeed, signalled a shift in attitude toward Keystone XL earlier this week when the president praised TransCanada's decision to proceed with constructing the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Tex.
In November, the Obama administration deferred making a decision on Keystone until after this year's presidential election, citing concerns about the risks the pipeline's proposed route could pose to the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.
Pipeline proponents cried foul, saying it was a cynical political move aimed at pacifying the anti-pipeline environmentalists among Obama's liberal base in advance of the November vote.
In January, facing a mid-February deadline imposed by congressional Republicans, the Obama administration rejected TransCanada's permit outright, saying it didn't have enough time to thoroughly review a new route before giving it the green light.
But Obama also assured Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the decision was not a reflection of the pipeline's merits, but was merely necessitated by Republican pressure tactics.
Romney, meantime, during a campaign stop Thursday in North Dakota, mocked Obama for rejecting the Keystone pipeline, using the same terminology Harper once did by calling the project a "no-brainer."
"When someone says we want to bring in a pipeline that's going to create tens of thousands of jobs to bring oil in from Canada, how in the world could you say no?" he asked.
Obama, Romney said, "is a president who does not understand energy. He is the problem. He is not the solution."
Ridiculing Obama's efforts to portray himself as a champion of domestic oil production, Romney said the private sector, not the president,deserves the real credit for an increase in such production.
Obama, in fact, put the brakes to such efforts by the private sector to boost domestic energy production.
"As a matter of fact, he is responsible for it not being as much of an increase as it could have been," he said.
"He doesn't get credit for the increase; he instead has tried to slow the growth of oil and gas production in this country, and coal production in this country."
"Far from taking credit" for a boost in domestic energy production, Romney added, Obama "should be hanging his head."
Obama's New Hampshire remarks were aimed at highlighting his accomplishments on domestic oil production as gas prices soar at the pump and his political foes point the finger of blame at his administration's energy policies.
The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline was at US$3.74 on Thursday, and appeared to be marching towards $4. Signs of an improving U.S. economy have pushed benchmark oil to $108 a barrel.
"Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years," Obama said.
"Under my administration, we have a near-record number of oil rigs operating right now — more working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined."
More than 400 drilling permits have been granted, he added, since the White House implemented new safety standards in the aftermath of the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.
Obama ridiculed his political enemies for blaming him for sky-high gas prices.
"I know this is hard to believe, but some politicians are seeing higher gas prices as a political opportunity," he said.
"You're shocked, aren't you? And right in the middle of an election year. Who would've thought? Recently, the lead of one news story said: 'Gasoline prices are on the rise, and Republicans are licking their chops.'"
Such political opportunism is shameful, he added.
"Licking their chops. I'll tell you – only in politics do people respond to bad news with such enthusiasm," he said.
"And you can bet we'll be hearing more about those magic, three-point plans for $2 gas. Just like we heard about in the last election. Just like we've heard about for 30 years. You know the plans I'm talking about: Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling."
Check out these images of anti-Keystone Pipeline protests across the U.S. in recent months.