The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 03, 2012

President’s pipeline decision riles building trades

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Building trades union leaders were livid over President Obama’s Jan. 18 decision to deny a federal permit to build the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline from the U.S.-Canada border to the Texas Gulf Coast.

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, and the company said it would do so.

Building trades presidents were particularly upset as four unions signed a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with TransCanada several years ago to use unionized labor to build the Keystone.  Estimates vary widely about the potential for job creation: the State Department says 5,000 to 7,000 jobs; the unions calculated when the PLA was signed that the pipeline’s construction would employ 20,000 workers directly and many more thousands of people indirectly. 

“The score is job-killers, two, American workers, zero,” said Laborers International Union General President Terrence 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.”

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.

“Today, the words ‘We Can't Wait’ truly ring hollow for skilled craft construction professionals across this nation,” said Building Trades Department President Mark Ayers, 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.  The GOP tacked the Keystone issue onto a jobless benefits bill, forcing Obama to make a controversial decision he wanted to avoid during this election year.

“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 No. 1 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 their livelihoods as they struggle to find work.”

Obama earlier last month won wide union praise for restocking the National Labor Relations Board with fresh appointments over strong GOP objections during a technical recess of Congress, so that labor’s issues could continue to get hearings and rulings. His Keystone ruling took away many of those good feelings, at least by the building trades.

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 jobs that are now on hold?”

(Press Associates contributed)