As President Obama weighs whether to give the Keystone XL pipeline his approval, climate scientists have warned that the volume of greenhouse gases released by the pipeline could push the planet over a climate tipping point. Proponents of the pipeline — which would pump 900,0000 barrels a day of bitumen crude from Alberta’s boreal forests to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico — promise that the economic benefits far out weigh whatever environmental damage ensues. Touting jobs numbers that have long been debunked, a large portion of American labor leadership is still providing working-class cover for the project’s corporate backers.
Amidst the ongoing jobs-vs-environment debate, however, one voice is noticeably absent: the bitumen workers in Canada who are largely against long-term tar sands extraction and the building of the pipeline.
“We’re diametrically opposed to the construction of it,” said David Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), which represents 35,000 Canadian oil and gas workers, including thousands laboring in the country’s tar sands. “The Keystone XL is not good for the economy, it’s not good for the environment, it violates all kinds of First Nations rights.”
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Coles says the union also opposes “the unfettered expansion” of tar sands extraction, saying “it’s not in the best interest of Canada and it’s not in the best interest of our members.” Coles and members of his staff were arrested in 2011 during a series of sit-ins in front of the White House to protest the pipeline. He says the CEP planned to send a delegation to subsequent rallies opposing the project, but called off plans after U.S. construction unions threatened to picket them.
A lifelong trade unionist who describes the jobs-vs.-environment debate as a “mug’s game,” Coles is the last person Jobs for the 99 wants you to hear from. America’s Building Trades Unions along with the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee launched the pro-pipeline campaign two years ago. Condemned by Occupy Wall Street for appropriating the movement’s signature number, the corporate website demands that “Hollywood’s elite 1% stop flying to DC and speaking out against jobs that help the other 99% of America!”
It also claims the pipeline will establish “20,000 immediate private sector jobs that do not rely on any government funding.”
The alleged 20,000 figure was first pushed by TransCanada, the company slated to build the pipeline should President Obama approve it. The company boldly insists the XL will spur another 119,000 auxiliary jobs.
But a comprehensive study by Cornell Global Labor Institute casts severe doubt on these numbers. Researchers point out that half of the steal used for the pipeline will be manufactured abroad, most of the jobs that the pipeline creates will be temporary, and 85% to 90% of those jobs will go to workers from outside the U.S. states which the pipeline passes through.
The study also discredits the input-output calculation model used by Ray Perryman, the Texas-based consultant who helped generate the lauded jobs numbers for TransCanada. Using the same economic model, Perryman was once quoted projecting that “dancers, choreographers and speech therapists” would land jobs if a proposed windmill project went forward.
In reality, the pipeline would actually hinder job growth. According too the Cornell study, the Keystone XL could cause the price of gasoline in the U.S. to rise 10 to 20 cents per gallon, due to the pipeline diverting large amounts of oil — which currently supply refineries in the midwest — to “be sold at higher prices to the Gulf Coast and export markets.” The pipeline would also damage the U.S.’s green economy which, as of the study’s 2011 publication, had “already generated 2.7 million jobs in the US and could generate many more.”
The State Department’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL, which was released earlier this year, has been roundly condemned for relying on consultants with direct ties to TransCanada. Still, the study that was designed to help President Obama make up his mind found that the pipeline would create only 35 permanent and 15 temporary jobs. Based on testimony that backers of the pipeline delivered to Canada’s National Energy Board, Coles even estimated the number of jobs created could be as low as seven.
Meanwhile, Sean Sweeney, who authored the Cornell study, says that for the pipeline’s union backers “the issue ultimately is not the number of jobs this particular pipeline will create.” They want to forge an alliance with oil and gas corporations “so that they can be their hired mercenaries and build more and more pipelines, forever.”
In a maneuver that observers say was meant to avoid alienating their environmental allies while appeasing builders unions, the AFL-CIO recently issued a statement that did not explicitly mention the XL but endorsed “expanding the nation’s pipeline system” in general. The statement failed to mention that the union representing 11 million U.S. workers already signed a project labor agreement with TransCanada to work on the pipeline.
Obama, too, appears to have swallowed the jobs pill, stating in a speech in April, “You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern. And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by.”
A small but growing number of U.S. unions, however, remain unconvinced.
Bruce Hamilton, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1700, joined a rally in New York earlier this month where several hundred anti-pipeline demonstrators confronted Obama at a $7,000 to $32,000 per plate fundraiser, in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Hamilton said that millions of jobs are needed — and could be created — by moving America off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy; upgrading the transportation infrastructure so that fewer people drive cars, and getting “all these buildings retrofitted so we can reduce the amount of carbon we release into our atmosphere.”
The Transport Workers Union also opposes the Keystone project, and an increasing number of health worker unions are joining them in the fight. National Nurses United published a statement earlier this year warning of the “significant impact” the pipeline would have on the health of communities along its route and that it will “exacerbate climate change which affects public health much more broadly even than the widespread direct impacts of the tar sands industry.”
“You cannot separate the environment, jobs, the economy, human rights,” said Coles of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. “It’s a four-legged stool and it’s falling over.”
“The thing that liberals and progressive minded people have not yet come to terms with is what do we do about an economic system that continually puts the health, environment and standard of living of workers at risk. Occupy Wall Street got it right,” he added. “One or two percent of society gets it all and the rest of us, the middle-class, the working-class, the poor, are all going down.”
Mass protests for the past several years have thus far kept the Keystone XL at bay. Obama delayed his confirmation of the project, late in his first term in office, after thousands encircled the White House calling on him to halt it. Demonstrators again returned to Washington, DC, in even larger numbers last February in what organizers described as “the largest climate rally in U.S. history.” Obama was reportedly away golfing during the demonstrations, literally teeing-up with oil and gas executives while tens of thousands marched on the nation’s capitol demanding that he veto the project.
For those fighting the pipeline, the argument is clear: organized labor has much more to gain by joining the coalition to defeat the Keystone XL — a coalition that is comprised of environmentalists, indigenous groups, students, unions, landowners and many others — than by teaming up TransCanada and their tar-stained bidders.