Unions jump into the controversy over Keystone pipeline

Although many  in the labor movement side with those who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline for environmental reasons, the AFL-CIO’s Building Trades Department, the Operating Engineers, the Laborers and the Electrical Workers are pushing President Obama to approve its construction as quickly as possible.

The unions backing its construction said at a Feb. 24 press conference here that they would favor, if the President doesn’t act just after the end of the formal 90-day period for reaction and comments, the introduction of legislation to approve the project. 

“It’s been five long years” since construction unions first signed a project labor agreement to build Keystone, and since its Canadian sponsors sought U.S. approval to build it, said Building Trades Department President Sean McGarvey. 

 “One figure that isn’t mentioned in all the reports about Keystone is that as of December, 952,000 construction workers were still out of work,” he added.  Thousands of those workers’ “families would be helped by putting shovels in the ground.” 

Environmental activists, among them many union members, are escalating their protests, meanwhile, against approval of the pipeline. Almost 300 candlelight vigils with 10,000 participants were held on Monday, Feb. 3 across the U.S. Environmentalists point out that the jobs created by pipeline construction are temporary, that more construction jobs would be created for less money by spending on essential infrastructure projects with less risk of hazardous health and climate impacts.

Most environmentalists support what the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, noted in an important article in Rolling Stone more than a year ago. McKibben said that to protect the environment from catastrophic climate change, we must leave much of the remaining fossil fuel in the ground. This crucial aspect is ignored by the State Department Environmental Impact Statement.

The National Nurses Union is now the leading union voice against Keystone, citing the environmental and health risks.

 “There is broad concern about the harmful health effects linked to both the extraction and transport of tar sands, as well as how the pipeline will accelerate the steadily worsening erosion of health we see every day as a result of climate change,” said Jean Ross, a registered nurse and NNU’s co-president.   “Nurses will continue to oppose construction of this project, and call on President Obama to stand with our patients and our communities, not the big oil interests, to reject Keystone.”

The union objects to Keystone on several grounds: The massive amount of water needed to extract tar sands oil in Alberta and the resultant contamination infects drinking water. There are leaks of heavy oil from current pipelines, and a massive expansion poses the real risk on more spills and leaks, which can contaminate water, land, and cause health risks. The NNU says these “pose a major danger” from increased sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, compared to extraction of ordinary oil, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

As pressure escalates on both sides of the issue, powerful groups that are not normally friendly towards the labor movement are, of course, leading the overall fight for pipeline approval. In addition to Republican lawmakers who favor its approval the project has the strong backing of the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Pro-pipleline forces are also taking advantage of the fact that President Obama lost all of the states that are involved in the project in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. Conservatives seek to pit unions against environmentalists, rather than fighting for the most jobs for the least money.

Laborers regional Vice President John Penn, whose territory includes the Keystone states – Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Oklahoma – even upped the ante by picturing the project as something necessary to help put returning veterans to work. Penn explained how he was helped when he returned from serving in Vietnam in 1970 and the Laborers found him pipeline work in Illinois 

Operating Engineers Legislative Director Jeffrey Soth, also at the press conference, claimed changes in the pipeline route through Nebraska had essentially solved environmental concerns there.  Those concerns led Obama to bounce the initial pipeline proposal, in early 2012. 

Keystone would carry 830,000 barrels of heavy oil daily from the Canada-Montana border to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.  The oil, from Albertan tar sands, is a sore point not just for environmental groups but also for several unions, among them National Nurses United.  They say it would increase carbon emissions that lead to global warming. 

The State Department, however, issued a “final environmental impact” statement on Jan. 31 contesting those claims. The State Department  didn’t actually refure the points made by environmentalists, but talked around them by saying the greenhouse emissions would happen anyway. The “logic” there is that the pipeline then wouldn’t “cause”  more greenhouse gas emission since that emission is going on anyway. Environmentalists say that contention by the State Department is highly contestable, at best.

Speakers at the pro pipleline press conference said that construction of the northern segment of Keystone, from the Montana-Canada border through the Dakotas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, would create thousands of construction jobs. 

That’s based on actual man-hours from construction of Keystone’s southern segment, Soth told Press Associates Union News Service after the press conference.

The southern segment runs from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast and opened for business on Jan. 22.  “There were more than 2 million man-hours” for the Operating Engineers alone building that segment, Soth explained, and 11 million among all building trades.  “And there’s a Houston lateral, of about 48 miles, which isn’t done yet, which has already taken over 200,000 man-hours” by IUOE members.  The southern segment alone employed more than 1,000 workers for two construction seasons, he said. 

 Unionists built the southern Keystone segment and are building the lateral, under a project labor agreement that building trades unions signed with TransCanada, the pipeline’s owner and sponsor, almost six years ago. 

 “The Canada-Nebraska segment is 1,200 miles and would take an estimated 6 million man-hours,” from the Operating Engineers alone, “so do the math,” Soth said.  If the President acts to approve quickly, workers could build Keystone in two construction seasons or slightly more, he estimated. 

The pipeline is not the only construction project in Keystone, Soth noted.  Keystone would not only transport Albertan oil, but 100,000 barrels daily from the Bakken field in the U.S.  Construction workers would build a $140 million oil storage facility for that oil, in Baker, Mont. 

The conservative Tory government in Canada has been a strong backer of the Keystone pipeline too and Gary Doer, the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, showed up at the Washington press conference to voice his government’s support.

Doer, whose Tory government has engaged in all kinds of attacks on unions, hypocritically said, “We should choose blue collar workers over Hollywood celebrities.” He was aiming, with that remark, at some of the well-placed pro-environment opponents of the project, many of them also supporters of President Obama.

Doer also tried to appeal to what he sees as anti-communist and anti-Muslim feelings in the U.S. “And we should choose crude oil from Canada over Venezuela (a country led by a left-wing government) and the Middle East,” the Tory ambassador said.            

Sen. John Hoever, R-S.D., threatened that if President Obama doesn’t OK the pipeline lawmakers favoring it can use several options.  One such option, he said, is passing a law specifically approving Keystone.  A second is a congressional joint resolution declaring Keystone is in the national interest, putting pressure on the President to approve it.  The third is to try to attach the Keystone OK to must-pass legislation, such as a law raising the U.S. federal debt ceiling, due by the end of this month.

Mark Gruenberg contributed to this article.

Photo: AP


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Marc Brodine
Marc Brodine

Marc Brodine is a former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change