Keystone fight unites unlikely bedfellows

The fight to approve the Keystone XL pipeline has strengthened the relationship between unlikely bedfellows: the oil and manufacturing industry, and unions.

The pairing between industry and a number of construction unions has undoubtedly put President Obama in an uncomfortable situation as labor unions have more often than not backed his policies.


But when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline, a number of unions are frustrated and have built up their relationship with prominent oil lobby American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

"I think they feel like they have been cast aside, and they’re not important and that's their frustration,” said Russ Girling, CEO of Keystone XL developer TransCanada Corp. “Unions find it insulting.”

In a letter to the Senate earlier this week, API and NAM partnered with five labor unions, calling for a vote on a Senate bill that would greenlight the oil-sands pipeline.

The friendship between NAM and the Laborer's International Union of North America, a building trades group, was built around the Keystone XL pipeline, said Chip Yost, assistant vice president for energy and resources policy at NAM.

The CEO of NAM called up LIUNA's president in 2010 to talk about approving Keystone XL, and since the relationship has only grown. 

"It's a unique relationship but a great relationship," Yost said. "And it's strengthened because of Keystone XL, it's the beginning of  a long-term partnership."

Yost added that Keystone XL has also opened up NAM to working more with other labor unions.

"As unions and the business community have worked their way through the Keystone XL process, they have come to understand that have to unite together and work together as a team," Yost said.

Keystone XL is just the beginning when it comes to the number of projects the industry and labor unions would like to work together on.

But Yost said some are worried that the fight surrounding the pipeline, which would carry crude from Alberta oil-sands to Gulf refineries, will become a template for opponents of other energy infrastructure projects.

Green groups opposing Keystone argue that construction of the pipeline would only create mainly temporary jobs, and roughly 50 permanent ones, citing findings in the State Department's environmental analysis.

The labor industries response: We want those jobs.

"They are temporary job, but important jobs," Yost said.

That's why the latest delay has only further enraged labor unions, and industry.

"What has intensified is the call for politics to come out of the process," said Khary Cauphen, who handles federal relations for the oil Iobby.

Cauphen said the battle cry for Obama to rule on Keystone XL is intensifying because the administration has delayed the project for nearly six years.

The administration has defended the roughly five and a half year process, stating the president will not get ahead of the review of the pipeline. The latest freeze on State's national interest analysis was attributed to uncertainty surrounding litigation in Nebraska, where a section of the pipeline's route runs.

“What we've seen in the past when Congress has passed legislation, it has actually slowed the process down. So we believe that this has to be run by the book outside of politics, and that's the way it's being run," White House press secretary Jay Carney said, shortly after the recent delay.

Supporters of the pipeline say enough is enough, and that after multiple environmental reviews the administration has all the information it needs to decide.

What has helped manifest, or embolden, the pairing, is a newfound alliance that not everything must be a fight.

"What you are seeing in this working relationship is that we don't everything should be a fight," legislative director for LIUNA David Malliano said of the partnership around Keystone. "What Keystone has done is it's clarified that world view for us."

"The national association of manufacturers are going to positions on things we won't agree with, we are join to continue to represent the inters of our members, but when there are things that we can come together on for workers and com

Mallino added that when companies get exposed to working with labor unions in a "fashion they're not used to," it helps everyone.

And now, when the administration had 14 days left in the interagency review of the pipeline, it has put a hold on the process for a second time, allowing its agencies more time to comment on the $5.4 billion project.

It’s a move that will only push labor unions and industry into finding another route to approve the pipeline.

“The five environmental statements have really exhausted what we know about the project,” a spokesperson for the International Union of Operating Engineers said, adding that in November it will back Democrats who support the project.

“Those are our allies, we will reelect them and get back to continue advocating for a vote on the project in the Senate,” the spokesperson said.

LIUNA has echoed a similar sentiment, broadcasting that it will hold its members’ elected representatives accountable. It sent letters to House Democrats opposing the pipeline stating it would notify its union members that they don’t back the project.

“If  you are going to oppose the pipeline then we are going to let constituents know what they are doing,” Mallino said. “Members don’t join our union so we can give people free passes. If folks don't like the fact that we are vocal about this then they are misguided.”