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Labor unions criticize Biden action against Keystone XL pipeline

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb. (Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP)
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb. (Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP)
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President Joe Biden won an estimated 57 percent of union households across America in last year's election, but one of his earliest actions in the White House on Wednesday a flurry of criticism from leading labor groups: his executive order revoking federal permitting for the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline project.

"Deeply disappointed," said the head of the North American Building Trades Unions, which endorsed Mr. Biden in October. "Will kill thousands of good-paying #UNION jobs!" tweeted the Laborers' International Union of North America. "Sadly, the Biden Administration has now put thousands of union workers out of work," lamented the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters.

For more than a decade, the Keystone XL project has been a focal point of controversy. First proposed in 2008, it was designed to parallel the existing Keystone pipeline, stretching 1, 200 miles and pumping 35 million gallons of crude oil a day from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. There existing pipeline infrastructure would carry the crude to terminals in the Gulf Coast for export abroad.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially blessed the pipeline, but under pressure from environmental groups and liberal celebrities, such as actress Julia Louis Dreyfus, the Obama administration moved twice to block Keystone XL. President Donald Trump, on his fourth day in office, signed an executive order allowing the project to go forward.

In his executive order on Monday, President Biden argued that continued federal approval for the project would jeopardize America's standing with other industrialized nations working to combat the effects of climate change.

"Our domestic efforts must go hand in hand with U.S. diplomatic engagement," the president said. "The United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway. Leaving the Keystone XL pipeline permit in place would not be consistent with my administration’s economic and climate imperatives."

The question of how many jobs the pipeline would actually generate has been disputed for years. Environmental activists have challenged the figures used by TransCanada, the corporation building the pipeline (now a subsidiary of TC Energy).

"TransCanada and lots of Republican politicians really lied to the American people about the job numbers," said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a group that has been battling against the completion of the pipeline for more than a decade. "They started at a million and went down to 10,000. And then in the state, when they're actually kind of under oath, at county boards, needing to get permits, they're more honest about what the numbers really are, which is 600 construction jobs that travel with the pipeline from state to state, and about 10 percent of those jobs go to local folks within our state.

"Those 600 jobs are good-paying union jobs," added Kleeb, who is also chair of the Democratic Party in the Cornhusker State. "But I also think it's important to be realistic about the actual number." She also said farmers and ranchers, and others in Native American tribes, would have been endangered by a "risky pipeline" going forward.

Advocates of the project have long insisted pipelines are environmentally safer to carry crude oil than rail transport, and that the jobs that would be created are substantial. "We contend that this project would provide 10,000 jobs directly, 2,000 jobs immediately working on the project," said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy at the American Petroleum Institute. "Those are good-paying union jobs."

Macchiarola noted that on the very day President Biden signed the executive order, TC Energy announced job cuts.

The issue became a focal point at the confirmation hearing held Thursday by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for Pete Buttigieg, the onetime campaign rival to President Biden who is now set to join the Biden cabinet as transportation secretary.

"Do you think that decision is going to impact climate at all, to kill the Keystone pipeline and kill thousands of jobs?" asked Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). "On net, more good-paying union jobs will be created in the context of the climate and infrastructure work that we have before us than has been impacted by other decisions.," Buttigieg replied.

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Actual construction on Keystone XL has only progressed into northern Montana, just over the Canadian border.

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