Feeding the Hand that Smites: Union Leaders Protesting Biden’s Cancellation of Keystone XL Pipeline Endorsed Him Despite Campaign Pledge to Kill the Project

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One of President Biden’s first official acts on Inauguration Day was to rescind the construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL). Although canceling the $8 billion project at some point was expected, making it a Day 1 priority is revelatory of the Biden-Harris administration’s inner child—its contempt for market-driven investment, disdain for American wage earners, and glee in harming industries progressives do not like.


TransCanada Energy Corporation (TC Energy) has been waiting a long time for this rejection. TC Energy first applied for a permit to build the pipeline in September 2009. Despite multiple State Department reviews over a six-year period, all concluding that construction of the KXL is the low-carbon option, President Obama rejected the application in November 2015.

President Trump laid the groundwork for reversing Obama’s decision in March 2017, directing federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews and approvals for “high priority infrastructure projects.” In March 2019, Trump authorized TC Energy to build the KXL. An Obama-appointed judge tied up the pipeline in litigation in 2018 and 2020. Nonetheless, the project employed more than 1,000 union workers until the Biden-Harris administration shut it down on January 20.   

If completed, the 1,178-mile KXL would have transported up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, other segments of the Keystone system, completed during 2011-2016, to the substantial benefit of local economies and tax bases, would have transported the oil to Gulf Coast refineries.

Union Leaders “Disappointed”

President Biden’s revocation of the permit simultaneously scuttled the project labor agreement TC Energy had signed with four U.S. labor unions: the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA).

TC Energy estimated the project would pay $3.4 billion in wages to U.S. and Canadian workers, create “more than 10,000 high-paying construction jobs that will be filled primarily by union workers,” and support tens of thousands of other jobs. Good news, especially for an economy crippled by government-imposed lockdowns.

Unsurprisingly, construction union leaders objected to the project’s cancellation, as Vivek Saxena of BizPac Review reported on January 22.

UA president Mark McManus criticized the Biden administration for putting “thousands of union workers out of work”:

In revoking this permit, the Biden Administration has chosen to listen to the voices of fringe activists instead of union members and the American consumer on Day 1. Let me be very clear: When built with union labor by the men and women of the United Association, pipelines like Keystone XL remain the safest and most efficient modes of energy transportation in the world. Sadly, the Biden Administration has now put thousands of union workers out of work. For the average American family, it means energy costs will go up and communities will no longer see the local investments that come with pipeline construction.

Sean McGarvey, President of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU), faulted the Biden administration for destroying more than 1,000 union jobs at the behest of “environmental ideologues”:

North America’s Building Trades Unions are deeply disappointed in the decision to cancel the Keystone XL permit on the President’s first official day in office. Environmental ideologues have now prevailed, and over a thousand union men and women have been terminated from employment on the project.

LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan accused the Biden administration of “pandering to environmental extremists”:

The Biden administration’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit on day one of his presidency is both insulting and disappointing to the thousands of hard-working LIUNA members who will lose good-paying, middle class family-supporting jobs. By blocking this 100 percent union project, and pandering to environmental extremists, a thousand union jobs will immediately vanish, and 10,000 additional jobs will be foregone.

O’Sullivan also claimed the “Keystone XL pipeline of today” is “dramatically different” from the project rejected by the Obama-Biden administration. Under the project labor agreement negotiated between TC Energy and the unions, TC Energy committed to invest $1.7 billion to operate the pipeline with renewable energy. TC Energy also pledged to invest $10 million in a “green jobs” training program.

While such tithings are novel, the new KXL is not “dramatically different” from the old because, as mentioned above, the KXL was always the low-carbon alternative.

Climatologically Irrelevant

The Obama-Biden State Department’s environmental assessments repeatedly found that rejecting the pipeline would not stop Canadian crude from reaching U.S. refineries. Rather, the oil would just flow to U.S. markets by less energy-efficient means—trains, barges, and smaller pipelines. Blocking the KXL could increase transport-related carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 42 percent.

More importantly, as climatologist Paul C. Knappenberger pointed out, using the Obama EPA’s own climate policy calculator, a model called MAGICC, even if we make the totally unrealistic assumption that all Keystone crude is additional petroleum that would otherwise remain in the ground, running the pipeline at full capacity for 1,000 years would add less than 1/10th of one degree Celsius to global warming. Climatologically, Keystone XL was, and remains, climatologically irrelevant.

Citing the Obama State Department’s November 6, 2015 Record of Decision, which claimed building the KXL would be inconsistent with the U.S. national interest, President Biden’s executive order asserts that “approval of the proposed pipeline would undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action.”

Not if the Biden-Harris administration comes clean and acknowledges that the KXL is (a) the low-carbon alternative and (b) climatologically irrelevant. Besides, the international diplomacy rationale for blocking the pipeline was silly in 2015 and even sillier now.

Whether or not the United States adds another 1,200 miles of pipe to a national petroleum pipeline network already spanning 190,000 miles was never a factor in any nation’s decision to join the Paris Climate Treaty. It has been five years since President Trump signed an executive order to expedite approval of high priority infrastructure projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Since then, not a single foreign country has withdrawn.

Feeding the Hand that Smites

But I digress. As Mr. Saxena observed in BizPac Review, all the union leaders currently kvetching about the President’s cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket.

Here is UA’s endorsement:

The NABTU crowed about Joe Biden’s voter turnout:

The LIUNA “proudly” endorsed “Biden & Harris,” who “stand out” as “blue-collar candidates.”

The LiUNA even took credit for helping “push Joe and Kamala over the top.”

But, if LIUNA and other construction unions helped Biden-Harris get elected, then they also helped kill the Keystone XL Pipeline. Don’t the union leaders bear some responsibility for President Biden’s destruction of their members’ jobs?

Fooled Again—Really?

The union leaders talk as if “Joe and Kamala” pulled a bait-and-switch, campaigning as “pro-labor” while, in fact, siding with “environmental extremists.” But Biden and Harris never promised to retain President Trump’s KXL construction permit. To the contrary, in May 2020, candidate Biden pledged if elected to rescind the KXL permit. In short, the union leaders endorsed Biden-Harris, cheered their victory, and may even have helped them win despite Joe’s pledge to scuttle the KXL, i.e., destroy union jobs.

Even if candidate Biden had not broadcast his position on the KXL, only a complete naïf would believe that today’s climate-obsessed Democratic Party leaders would take a kinder gentler approach to large fossil-fuel energy infrastructure projects than the Obama-Biden administration did.

The union leaders’ protestations ring hollow. They voiced the same objections when Obama-Biden nixed the KXL yet chose in 2020 to stump for a ticket hailing the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework” for climate policy.

In a November 2015 interview with the Financial Post, NABTU President Sean McGarvey called Obama a “hypocrite” for rejecting the pipeline. McGarvey said that by siding with “radical environmentalists,” Obama alienated workers, a core constituency of the Democratic Party, who want jobs and reasonable environmental and energy policies. McGarvey cited the State Department’s finding that the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. He noted the inconsistency between the administration’s rejection of the KXL and its approval of 12,000 miles of other oil pipelines since 2009. He pointed out that Obama even attended the groundbreaking for the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been operating since 2014.

McGarvey concluded that the KXL’s fate was sealed from the start: “This cake was baked a long time ago. It was unfortunate that once the decision was made, that they didn’t just go ahead and issue the decision then, that they played politics with the pipeline … and used it as a fundraising vehicle for political campaigns.”

LIUNA’s Terry O’Sullivan has long identified attacks on the KXL with attacks on his members. In March 2012, when unions affiliated with the BlueGreen Alliance lobbied against the pipeline, O’Sullivan said he was “repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.”

In February 2015, when President Obama vetoed legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, O’Sullivan commented: “Given that the administration has done everything it can to delay and block the creation of good construction careers on the Keystone XL Pipeline, the veto can be described with two words: disgustingly predictable.”

When President Obama officially rejected the pipeline in November 2015, O’Sullivan said Obama had “thrown working people under the bus of his [climate] legacy.” This excerpt is suitable for framing:

President Obama today demonstrated that he cares more about kowtowing to green-collar elitists than he does about creating desperately needed, family-supporting, blue-collar jobs. After a seven-year circus of cowardly delay, the President’s decision to kill the Keystone XL Pipeline is just one more indication of an utter disdain and disregard for salt-of-the-earth, middle-class working Americans. The politics he has played with their lives and livelihoods is far dirtier than oil carried by any pipeline in the world, and the cynical manipulation of the approval process has made a mockery of regulatory institutions and government itself. We are dismayed and disgusted that the President has once again thrown the members of LIUNA, and other hard-working, blue-collar workers under the bus of his vaunted “legacy,” while doing little or nothing to make a real difference in global climate change.  His actions are shameful.

Who Is Fooling Whom?

What is “disgustingly predictable” is that today’s union leaders consistently put party over the interests of those they profess to represent. To endorse candidates who pledge to destroy the jobs of your members, celebrate when those candidates get elected, crow about helping put them in office, and then claim to be “disappointed and insulted” by policy decisions “baked” into the candidates’ well-known agendas, is pathetic.

The Biden-Harris administration’s revocation of the KXL permit is not the only rollback of Trump’s pro-construction policies. The same executive order also revokes President Trump’s January 2017 order expediting environmental reviews and approvals for high priority infrastructure projects, the executive order of March 2017 promoting energy independence and economic growth, the executive order of April 2019 promoting energy infrastructure and economic growth, and the executive order of August 2017 establishing discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects.

If union leaders were “disappointed” and felt “insulted,” it was not because of what President Biden did but how he did it. Biden axed the Keystone XL Pipeline right out of the gate instead of allowing a decent interval between Inauguration and cancelation. Biden denied them the charade of a stakeholder process in which administration officials pretend to care about workers’ concerns before executing a kill order already decided in advance.

So, no, the union leaders were not misled or fooled by President Biden. If anyone was fooled, it was the union’s rank and file members. The wonder of it all, to me anyway, is how union leaders retain their positions despite continually endorsing politicians who care so little about the real interests of working Americans.