WASHINGTON – Union leaders split on President Obama’s Jan. 18 denial of a federal permit to build the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline from the U.S.-Canada border to the Texas Gulf Coast. Construction unions called Obama’s ruling a “job killer,” and two leaders said members would remember in November. But at least five unions sided with environmental groups against Keystone.

Obama said the controversial project could not be constructed as planned by its sponsor, TransCanada, because it would endanger a valuable underground aquifer in Nebraska. He said TransCanada could apply again once it worked out a new route around the aquifer. TransCanada said it would do so.


Environmental groups strongly opposed the pipeline because they said it would pump bitumen-laden “dirty oil” from Albertan tar sands to the Gulf Coast, increasing the pollution that leads to global warming. The Transport Workers, Steel Workers, Communications Workers, Auto Workers, and Service Employees sided with the environmentalists.


Construction union presidents were particularly upset as four unions signed a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with TransCanada several years ago to use unionized labor to build Keystone. At that time, the unions calculated the pipeline’s construction would employ 20,000 workers directly and many more thousands of people indirectly.


But an environmental impact statement by the State Department, which evaluated Keystone since it crossed the international border, put the construction job figure at 5,000-7,000. Still, it meant jobs, and Obama’s decision led two union leaders, Laborers’ President Terry O’Sullivan and Building Trades Department President Mark Ayers to blast the politics behind it, and the environmentalists, too.


Both also warned the decision to block Keystone could cost Obama votes.


“The score is job-killers, two, American workers, zero,” said O’Sullivan. “We are completely and totally disappointed. This is politics at its worst.


“Once again the president has sided with environmentalists instead of blue collar construction workers, even though environmental concerns were more than adequately addressed. Blue collar construction workers across the U.S. will not forget this,” he said. O’Sullivan called environmentalists’ links of Keystone to global warming “disingenuous.”


“The administration and environmentalists have blown the whistle on workers trying to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Instead of celebrating their victory by hugging a tree they should hug a jobless construction worker because they’re the ones who are going to need it,” O’Sullivan concluded.

“Today, the words ‘we can’t wait’ truly ring hollow for skilled craft construction professionals across this nation,” Ayers said, referring to Obama’s pro-jobs theme and his chastisement of the GOP-run House for not passing jobs bills. The House GOP supported Keystone. Its idea, tacked onto a jobless benefits bill, forced Obama to rule.

“With a national unemployment rate in construction at 16 percent, it is beyond disappointing that President Obama placed a higher priority on politics rather than our nation’s number one challenge: jobs,” Ayers added. “Environmental activists not saddled with the economic and psychological scars that accompany long-term unemployment successfully induced the White House to block this project.


“Meanwhile, thousands of proud Americans throughout the heartland will once again be faced with the terrifying prospect of losing their homes and livelihoods as they struggle to find work.”


Unions and environmental groups that praised Obama issued a joint statement lauding his decision to go slow and blaming the House GOP for forcing the ruling by mid-February for political purposes, while ignoring or killing other pro-jobs legislation.


“Keystone XL is a complex project which deserved the careful consideration regarding its environmental and economic impacts that the Obama administration planned to provide,” the five unions that praised Obama’s decision said.


“In a cynical move, the House Republican leadership called for a rapid decision on the pipeline in exchange for agreeing to keep the payroll tax cut in place. The payroll tax cut enacted last year has been an important part of efforts to turn around our struggling economy. While the House Republicans wrapped job creation rhetoric around their pipeline demands, they have rejected numerous opportunities to support programs creating good U.S. jobs,’ the union leaders added.


“A project this far-reaching deserved better than the ‘politics as usual’ strategy of a do-nothing Republican Congress. Their job blackmail agenda is simply wedge politics. Addressing global climate change, establishing sustainable and secure energy sources, and creating and retaining safe and family-supportive jobs are keys to a positive future for our children and grandchildren. President Obama has acted wisely,” the union leaders concluded.


IBEW President Ed Hill said his union is “disappointed” by Obama’s decision, but he also cited the second chance Obama gave Keystone.


“We are treating today’s decision as a temporary setback,” Hill said. “We believe the decision-making process has been caught up in political gamesmanship. To Democrats who oppose the pipeline on well-meaning but misguided environmental grounds, and Republicans who routinely vote against every jobs bill except Keystone, we pose this question: What are your plans to replace the 20,000 (sic) jobs that are now on hold?”



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.