Unions lend their voice to the Keystone XL pipeline economic debate

Several Nebraska union members testified in York before the state Public Service Commission in June. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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August 3, 2017 - 6:45am

NET News takes a look at the economic impact pipeline construction might have; and we hear about one group becoming increasingly involved in the public debate: the unions.


Every summer when he was a kid, TJ Dick’s father would gather his family into a fifth wheel camper and hit the road - leaving their small house in Blair, Nebraska behind.

“It was pretty interesting. It was a neat way to grow up,” Dick recalls.

His father was a pipeline worker and he’d often travel to wherever the work would take him - anywhere from Colorado to Arizona. Now, several decades later, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Dick works as an organizer for pipeline operating engineers with Local 571 in Omaha that also provides training in construction and apprenticeship programs.

‘We have a much smaller membership, but with our training site and everything, we have huge overhead. We own our own bulldozers, cranes, etc. We have to have that to provide the kind of training these guys need to go out into the field,” says Dick.

But opportunities to apply those skills can only come if there’s work. That’s why pipeline unions like 571 have been busy the past few months fighting for what they consider to be a prize project: The Keystone XL Pipeline.

Pipeline builder TransCanada and its backers have long stressed the number of jobs needed to help build the $8 billion pipeline, which would connect Canadian oil to refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The company claims the complete construction of KXL will create thousands of direct construction and manufacturing jobs in the US. Those figures are music to Dick’s ears. Not only because of the employment, but also what it does for the union.

“To have a big project like that come in and generate a lot of money – that helps… That’s a really huge thing for our local. The last one we had go through kind of sustained us for a lot of years after that,” Dick says.

Dick is referring to the first Keystone pipeline constructed in 2009. Union pipeline workers and their families from around the country converged on Norfolk for a segment of the pipeline that crossed Nebraska. The project not only provided employment for pipeline workers, but proponents say it also gave a shot in the arm to the city’s economy.

Eric Thompson is an associate professor of economics as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

“Typically there while be some significant employment impact during the construction phase. Now, the ongoing impact probably would be more modest,” Thompson says.

Thompson adds while infrastructure projects like the first Keystone pipeline are beneficial, most of the positions tend to be temporary, with modest long-term job creation. He says, on the whole, most of the economic impact is more national than local.

“The benefit region is really much larger: it’s the whole nation, to the extent that it improves the flow of oil – one of our main commodities in the national economy. That could provide some national economic benefit. Of course, that has to be traded off against concerns related to the environment,” says Thompson.

Those environmental concerns have some wondering if the priority shouldn’t be on other infrastructure projects.

Lara Skinner is Associate Director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University:

“I think the biggest issue is we still have more investment in fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – than we do in renewables,” says Skinner.

In 2011, Skinner and her colleagues conducted a study taking a look at KXL jobs claims by TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute. She says the study’s findings cast doubt on the figures.

“It was very clear both from the study Cornell did and from the State Department’s own assessment of the project, they had inflated the project’s cost to make it seem like more jobs would be created. They had conflated the direct/indirect and induced jobs that would be created to make it seem like more people would be employed building the pipeline, maintaining it, and repairing it after it was constructed," Skinner says.

Skinner says she understands why unions support fossil fuel projects. She says workers have been been hearing for the past decade that millions of jobs are going to be created in the “green” economy, but they haven’t materialized. The few that have often go to day laborers, not the unions. And typically, the pay isn’t great.

“If we’re going to step up to the threat of climate change, how are we shifting our investments so the majority of them are going into solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Too much of the work is happening non-union. We need to make sure these are good jobs,” says Skinner. 

And with the average pay of pipeline positions ranging from 60 to 100,000 dollars a year; the incentive to find the work, and lobby for pipeline projects remains. TJ Dickhopes the jobs continue to be there, especially for his two young sons who he says have already shown an interest in becoming pipeline workers like their father and grandfather.  

“If they start going this direction, I’m hoping with having these good union jobs - the pension and opportunities are still there. If they want to travel, see the country, work and make good money, I want that opportunity to be there for them too,” Dick says.


This story is part of the NET News reporting project On The Line: Keystone In Nebraska, looking into some of the issues the Nebraska Public Service Commission will consider in its final hearing on Keystone XL August 7-11.

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