Unions split on plans for Keystone XL pipeline

TULSA, Okla. — While the rest of the economy was in a free fall beginning in 2008, pipeline workers across the country have been busy, said Daniel Hendrix, business manager for Tulsa-based Pipefitters Union Local 798.

“We have been fortunate,” Hendrix said. “We have been in a real boom of epic proportions.”

The Local 798 has not been this busy since 1968, when it started building the Alaska Pipeline.

The Local 798 measures work in man-hours, Hendrix told the Journal Record (http://is.gd/DxYAng). On average, the 6,500 members of the Local 798, which performs 86 percent of the pipeline construction in the United States, average 2.5 million man-hours.

In 2008, Local 798 members performed nearly five times that amount — 12 million man-hours.

Since 2008, things have not slowed down dramatically.

In 2011, Local 798 members worked 7.3 million man-hours, Hendrix said.

“This year we will top 8 million,” he said.

He said Local 798 performed work on more than 400 projects in 2012 and expect as many this year.

If the northern extension of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is approved and work begins, then, depending on the start date, it could add another 500,000 to 750,000 man-hours, Hendrix said.

Last month Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, backed construction of the Keystone XL in a statement that downplayed divisions among unions in the labor federation.

The Keystone XL project is a pipeline project that will transport crude oil from Canada and the Bakken Shale formation in Montana to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Work is under way to construct the pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf Coast. However, the project’s final approval for the northern section has lagged.

The U.S. State Department’s draft supplemental report released last week indicated that the pipeline can be built with no significant damage to the environment

Hendrix called the Keystone XL pipeline project the most controversial project since the Alaska Pipeline 40 years ago.

“There is a misconception,” Hendrix said. “Unions are not against the pipeline, just against the product.”

The oil sands, or sometimes referred to as tar sands, are a thick oil that requires chemicals to thin it so it will flow easier through the line. The oil is not much different from heavy oil produced in Venezuela or some heavy oil from Mexico, Hendrix said.

What makes the latest Keystone XL project controversial is that it followed the Gulf of Mexico blowout and spill in April 2010, then a pipeline rupture in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan three months later, he said.

As a result, the Keystone XL pipeline has been a thorny issue for the labor federation as it counters stances made by environmentalists, Hendrix said.

Many unions such as the Laborers International Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO and others strongly back construction of Keystone, calling it a way to create jobs.

But the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union oppose the Keystone XL due to environmental concerns about the oil sands and potential pipeline spills.

“Sometimes we do not agree on projects,” Hendrix said.

The Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee, or ONGIL-MC, a partnership of oil companies and their unions, applauded the State Department’s report.

“This is another in the long line of environmental and economic reviews of the Keystone XL Pipeline that have noted the strong jobs benefits and minimal environmental effects of building the pipeline,” said Sean McGarvey, ONGIL-MC chairman and AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department president, in a statement. “I hope this document serves as a reminder to the president that the pipeline will be built by the world’s best-trained workers and remains the safest and most efficient option for oil transportation.”