By Ben Geman - 05/07/12 03:02 AM EDT
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is backing construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline in comments that downplay divisions among unions in the labor federation over the controversial project.
“They are not divided on the pipeline itself,” Trumka said in a C-SPAN interview when asked about differences among unions over Keystone. “They are divided on how the pipeline is done.”
The comments could provide a political lift to advocates of the proposed pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, a project that has increasingly been at the center for election-year political battles over energy.
Capitol Hill Republicans – and some Democrats – are pushing for immediate approval of the TransCanada Corp.’s project, and Republican leaders have hammered President Obama because he has not granted a permit for the pipeline.
Obama, who has won the AFL-CIO’s endorsement, has said more review is needed but has not taken a position on the cross-border pipeline itself.
The AFL-CIO does not have a formal position on Keystone but Trumka has previously suggested he thought the pipeline issues could be resolved. “We can do it [in an] environmentally friendly way and still create the jobs,” he told Bloomberg in March.
Trumka’s comments in recent months – including the weekend statement of support on C-SPAN – appear to go further than his remarks about the project in a January speech on energy and climate change.
Trumka said in the January remarks that the AFL-CIO did not have a position on Keystone because “unions don’t agree among ourselves.”
The speech – which also criticized climate change deniers on Capitol Hill – gave nods to jobs from the pipeline but also concerns about greenhouse gases from oil sands.
The pipeline has been a thorny issue for the labor federation and harmed at least one major union's relationship with environmentalists.
Many unions including 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 have opposed Keystone due to environmental concerns about the oil sands and potential pipeline spills.
And the United Steelworkers, the United Autoworkers, the Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union joined those two unions and two big green groups in a statement that backed Obama’s January decision to reject a permit for Keystone.
They issued a careful joint statement in January that stopped short of flatly opposing Keystone, but criticized Republicans for having demanded a 60-day decision on the project in late 2011 payroll tax cut legislation. The statement attacked the GOP for tethering the pipeline to extension of the payroll tax cut.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, bitterly oppose Keystone due to greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and burning oil sands, forest damage from the massive projects in Alberta, and fear of spills along the pipeline route.
The White House, when rejecting a permit for the pipeline in January, said the decision was not on the “merits” of the project but instead alleged the GOP was demanding a deadline that would short-circuit review.
TransCanada Corp. re-applied for a federal cross-border permit late last week.
Backers of the project say construction should be authorized and that the project should go forward even as a route to avoid ecologically sensitive regions of Nebraska is studied.
Keystone will again be front and center on Capitol Hill in coming days. The pipeline is looming over the official launch next week of House-Senate talks on transportation legislation.
The first formal session of the bicameral panel trying to hash out a final bill arrives Tuesday afternoon.
The House version of the bill approves Keystone, while the Senate’s plan omits the provision.
Keystone advocates on Capitol Hill, backed by an intense lobbying campaign from oil-industry and business groups, will push for the pipeline to make the final cut but face major hurdles.
While Republicans have for months been hammering Obama over Keystone, Trumka said on C-SPAN that he does not believe Obama will be politically wounded by the GOP attacks.
“If they would have had any credibility about job creation, they might have been able to capitalize on it,” Trumka said of Republicans. “But they don’t have any credibility on job creation because they are touting the same identical policy that got us into the mess.”