A Canadian company's plan to pipe oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast is pitting traditional Democratic allies against each other.
Two major unions said Friday they oppose the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline. That stance aligns them with environmentalists but puts them at odds with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the largest and most influential unions.
The Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union say they're concerned that the $7 billion pipeline could pollute groundwater and cause health problems near the Texas refineries where the oil will go.
Calgary-based TransCanada wants to build a pipeline to carry crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline would go through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The project is big, but pales beside another TransCanada proposal: building a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope in Alaska to Alberta, for up to $41 billion, or Valdez, for $20 billion. When TransCanada initially said it would build the gas line to Alberta, it prompted speculation that Alaska gas would be used to extract oil from the tar sands and not heat homes in the Midwest. That's what led former Gov. Wally Hickel to oppose TransCanada in 2008 before it got its license under a law pushed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin.
"I believe that Alaska's gas, instead of serving America as Gov. Palin sincerely hopes it will, will stay in Alberta and be used to heat the tar sands to produce synthetic oil, a process that many Canadians fear will become a world class environmental disaster," Hickel wrote in the Daily News before he died.
So far, no customers of any kind for Alaska's gas have come forward and the TransCanada gas pipeline remains just a proposal.
Larry J. Hanley, president of the ATU, said the risk of oil spills, ruptures and other possible environmental damage from TransCanada's oil pipeline outweighs the lure of new jobs.
"We think there are lots of ways to produce lots of jobs, and you don't have to foul the environment," he said. "We think there are issues that trump the simple question of jobs."
Hanley also said he believes the 20,000 jobs projected by TransCanada -- including 13,000 construction jobs -- are inflated. Hanley declined to comment on the Teamsters' endorsement of the project, saying it was a "difference of opinion."
James Kimball, chief economist for the Teamsters, said the project would create up to 1,500 Teamsters jobs at a time of high unemployment.
"This project means jobs -- and jobs for our members," he said at a conference call this week organized by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobbying group.
If President Barack Obama really wants to create jobs, he should approve the pipeline instead of touring the Midwest on a bus, Cindy Schild, the institute's refining issues manager said.
"He's been talking about jobs. This is the opportunity: the largest shovel-ready project in the United States," she said. "You've got to put actions where your priorities are, and our priorities need to be jobs."
The pipeline needs a document known as a presidential permit because it crosses an international boundary, although in practice the State Department has authority over the project.
The State Department is expected to complete an environmental analysis this month, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she will make a decision by the end of the year.
TransCanada declined to comment on the opposition to the project by the two transit unions, but says it has agreements with at least six unions to build the pipeline.
Organized labor's support for the project was credited with boosting congressional support for legislation that would force the Obama administration to make a final decision on the pipeline by Nov. 1. That bill passed the House last month with bipartisan support, but it is not likely to advance in the Senate.
The disagreement among labor unions comes as more than 2,000 people are scheduled to take part in daily sit-ins at the White House to pressure the Obama administration to deny a permit for Keystone XL.
The project would double the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada, and supporters say it could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Environmental groups say the pipeline would bring "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract and could cause an ecological disaster in case of a spill.
"It's either a 'yes' or a 'no' for the climate-killing Keystone XL oil pipeline -- and Obama gets to make the call," said environmental author Bill McKibben, one of the leaders of the protest.
The protests, which begin today, will culminate in a Sept. 3 rally outside the White House. The events are intended to "show the president he has the support necessary to stand up to Big Oil and stop the pipeline," McKibben said.