The Keystone Pipeline: can labor and environmentalists work together?

WASHINGTON – Building Trades unions are backing – and transit unions opposing – the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, from the tar sands of the Canadian province of Alberta to the oil refineries of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The unions’ stands come as the $7 billion project, which is estimated to create at least 20,000 construction jobs and another 100,000 indirect jobs, was apparently found to have little environmental impact, in the final required analysis that the State Department released.

The deadline for the Obama administration’s approval of the project – 1,384 miles in the U.S. and just under 400 miles in Canada – is mid-December. The House’s ruling Republicans have passed legislation ordering the agency to decide by Nov. 1, with the clear implication that they want the pipeline OK’d. When complete, it could transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day, State’s environmental impact statement says.

The building trades strongly support the project, which would carry oil from Alberta through a new pipeline from Morgan, Mont., to Steele City, Neb., an existing pipeline to Cushing, Okla., and a new pipeline south to the Gulf Coast. TransCanada, the pipeline’s owner, signed a project labor agreement with the Teamsters, the Laborers, the Plumbers and the Operating Engineers for new pipeline construction.

But environmental groups strongly oppose the project, saying it would increase carbon emissions. Some environmentalists have staged daily anti-Keystone protests in front of the White House. The transit workers’ unions oppose it for the same reason.

“America’s building trades unions are pleased the Department of State issued an Environmental Impact Statement that concludes the Keystone XL pipeline poses no significant environmental concern,” Building Trades President Mark Ayers said Aug. 29.

Then Ayers addressed the environmental objections. Construction unionists, like other Americans, “enjoy and value our nation’s environment…In keeping with these concerns, the Building and Construction Trades Department studiously reviewed and digested the environmental claims” by those with legitimate concerns, he told Press Associates.

Ayers stated a crude oil spill from the pipeline “moves so slowly that it would hardly endanger water quality before being successfully contained.” Other pipelines, besides Keystone, already cross the Ogallala Aquifer, the huge underground reservoir of drinking and irrigation water that concerns environmentalists, Ayers said.

“Further, TransCanada [has agreed to] 57 safety conditions that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, has recommended,” Ayers said.

The State Department report confirmed that statement.

The Building Trades Department is “satisfied the environmental claims being bandied about by KXL opponents were not based in fact,” Ayers said. He then touted its economic impact, in creating jobs and injecting $7 billion into the economy in “family-supporting wages and benefits…without one dime of public expenditure.”

Almost a year ago, the presidents of the four unions on the project labor agreement wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging quick approval of the pipeline. They called it a “game-changer” for construction workers and the economy.

“Each week that goes by in the permitting process of the Keystone XL…is lost ground for thousands of workers who are sitting on the sidelines of our ailing national economy,” presidents Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers, Vincent Giblin of the Operating Engineers, William Hite of the Plumbers and James Hoffa of the Teamsters said then.

However, all this did not satisfy Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley and Transport Workers President James Little.

“We call on the State Department not to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or to take any actions that lead to the further extraction of Tar Sands oil from Alberta,” they wrote to Clinton in late August 2011.

“We share the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns. These cover the potential impacts to groundwater resources from pipeline spills, the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the proposed project, and the inevitable damage to the health of communities affected by the increase in refinery emissions. Approval of this project at this time would therefore be reckless, given the EPA’s own assessment of the environmental risks.”

Hanley and Little agreed that construction workers need jobs, but pointed out the workers could be employed in rebuilding water and sewer pipelines and repairing aging bridges and tunnels, instead of building Keystone XL.

Photo: This 2008 photo shows rail cars loaded with pipe for the first Keystone Pipeline project, which now carries crude oil across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald/AP)



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.