Construction Unions Join Coalition To Push Obama To Ok Keystone

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)—The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, the Operating Engineers, the Laborers and the Electrical Workers joined a bipartisan coalition to push Democratic President Barack Obama to approve construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline as quickly as possible.

And if Obama doesn’t act just after the end of the formal 90-day period for reaction and federal agency comments, the coalition’s congressional leaders of both parties will draft legislation to force his hand, they told a Feb. 4 press conference.

“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. OK 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.”

Laborers regional Vice President John Penn, whose territory includes the Keystone states – Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Oklahoma – said building the pipeline would put returning veterans to work, just as his Laborers local found him pipeline work when he returned from Vietnam to Illinois in 1970.

And Operating Engineers Legislative Director Jeffrey Soth said changes in the pipeline route through Nebraska 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 for environmental groups and several unions, led by National Nurses United.  They say it would increase carbon emissions that lead to global warming.

But the State Department, the lead agency on Keystone, issued a final environmental impact statement on Jan. 31 saying there would be little change.  Coalition press conference speakers made that same point, adding 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 for 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 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.

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 Obama acts 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 Montana and North Dakota.  Construction workers would build a $140 million oil storage facility for that oil, in Baker, Mont.

Senators from both parties convened the coalition, which also includes the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Obama lost all the states involved — Keystone and non-Keystone — in both 2008 and 2012.  Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer also joined the press conference.  Canada’s Tory government is a strong backer of Keystone.

If Obama doesn’t OK the pipeline on his own, the lawmakers have several options, said their leader, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.  One is passing a law specifically approving Keystone.  A second is a congressional joint resolution declaring Keystone is in the national interest, putting pressure on Obama 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.

“The president hasn’t told us his timetable” for a decision, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who was skeptical of Hoeven’s third legislative choice.

Doer also said Keystone is in the national security interest of North America.  “We should choose blue-collar workers over Hollywood celebrities,” he said, aiming at prominent pro-Obama environmentalists and their financial backers.  “And we should choose crude oil from Canada over crude from Venezuela and the Middle East.”  Keystone’s daily oil shipments from Alberta would equal U.S. imports from Venezuela.

“The final environmental analysis of the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline

underscores what experts have said for five years: There is no environmental justification to block the construction or operation of the pipeline,” added Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan in a statement.  His union is a Keystone PLA signer.

“Following the upcoming public comment period, there are no reasons for further delay.  It is time to unlock the good jobs the pipeline will create, a lifeline to thousands of working men and women.  It is time to harness the energy that a trusted neighbor can provide and lessen our dependence on oil from unfriendly and often tyrannical regimes.

“There will continue to be extremists in the environmental movement who will try to block safe, job-creating projects to boost their fund-raising efforts, but they do nothing to address the real issue of climate change.  They must not deny science.   Rather than continuing to wage war on safe projects, we urge them to return to the fight for comprehensive climate change legislation, which is the only way our country and our world will make inroads in the battle against global warming,” he stated.

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

“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 that infects drinking water, leaks of the heavy oil from current pipelines, which NNU says “pose a major danger,” and increased sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, compared to extraction of ordinary oil, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment Kerri-Ann Jones, releasing the environmental impact statement on Keystone, addressed the objections.

“Pipeline safety has always been a priority, and it was a subject of many of the comments,” Jones said.  “The final supplemental document includes additional analysis and conditions to address pipeline safety concerns” based on risk analysis and federal pipeline safety agency comments.  “One of the things we’ve done differently is we have taken all of the suggested potential mitigation actions related to pipeline safety and other issues, and put them all together” in the environmental statement.