[by Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith]

More than two million American construction workers — nearly one in five — are currently unemployed. Factories that produce building materials are operating at only half their capacity. So when a private company proposes a project that it claims will spur the creation of 118,000 new jobs, it is hardly surprising that unions representing construction, transportation, and related workers pricked up their ears.

The project is the Keystone XL Pipeline. It will take oil produced from tar sands in Alberta, Canada 1,959 miles to Nederland, Texas.

The General Presidents of the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers unions say the project will “pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries.” It will allow “the American worker” to “get back to the task of strengthening their families and the communities they live in.”

It sounds good. But before supporting the project, we need to take a deeper look at whether this project — and the energy practices it will make possible — will really lead to “better days” for working men and women, their families, and their communities. We need to know whether there are dangers that make the project more of a threat than a promise. And we need to know whether the claims made for its benefits are really true.

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Under the forest in northern Alberta, Canada lie the world’s largest deposits of so-called “tar sands,” sand mixed with thick, tar-like oil. To produce one barrel of heavy crude oil from tar sands requires strip mining the forest, extracting four tons of earth, contaminating two to four barrels of fresh water, burning large amounts of natural gas, and creating vast holding ponds of toxic sludge. Production of this oil is increasing and a growing amount of it is already being shipped to the US.

The Keystone XL will be a 36-inch crude oil pipeline stretching nearly 2,000 miles from Hardisty, Alberta through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to terminals at Nederland, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil will be heated to more than 150 degrees and pumped through it at high pressure. It is designed to carry more than eight hundred thousand barrels of crude oil extracted from oil sands to refineries in the US.

Does the Keystone XL hold a hidden threat?

The Keystone XL pipeline is a key link in an energy path that will lead to devastation for the American working families we are told it will provide “better days.” Here’s why.

We’ve all heard about global warming caused by the emission of carbon and other “greenhouse gasses” into the atmosphere. Despite the claims of a political faction that it is a myth, there is a near-total consensus among climate scientists that it is real and that and that it will cause devastating climate change. That means rising sea levels, an ever-increasing number of extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves, and consequences like forest fires and species extinction.

We can see these effects emerging right now. 2010 was tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record. Rising sea levels, heat waves, forest fires, tornadoes, floods – their rising frequency and destructiveness are not in some distant future, but right now. As Scientific American recently noted,

In this year alone massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China and devastated Colombia. And this year’s natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, Tenn., and Pakistan, to Russia’s crippling heat wave.

Scientists calculate that the safe level for carbon in the atmosphere is 350 parts per millions. But we are already significantly over that level — which is why we are already facing devastating climate change. Only by drastically limiting our carbon emissions can we limit still greater devastation.

Why is a single pipeline — the Keystone XL — so important to this story? Because it is the key link in an energy strategy that will radically escalate carbon emissions still further.

The energy strategy is to introduce large quantities of oil from Canadian tar sands. According to the US Department of Environmental Protection, the greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands crude oil will be more than 80% greater than oil refined in the US. Independent estimates run up to three times more global warming pollution than conventional oil.

Once the Keystone XL is in place, a wide area of the US will become dependent on oil from Canadian tar sands. With no available alternative, pressure will grow to import more and more of it. Even more dangerous, the pipeline will lock in dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come and remove the pressure to convert to renewable alternatives.

The Alberta tar sands are estimated to contain enough carbon to raise carbon emissions in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million. That would increase the current level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by more than half. It would be more than enough to create more climate change than in the entire history of humanity on earth. It would also render pointless all other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As leading climate scientist James Hanson put it, “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the co2 while burning oil.” We “cannot get back to a safe CO2 level” if “unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands are exploited.”

There are also a multitude of other problems with the project. Tar sands extraction is already devastating native lands in Alberta. Other recently built pipelines are already leaking and spilling large quantities of oil into the US environment. The pipeline threatens the aquifer that is critical for Midwestern agriculture and drinking water. The tar sand oil carry some of the deadliest chemicals, including nickel, vanadium, lead, chromium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, and benzene

But isn’t the Keystone XL pipeline part of a balanced energy policy?

The trade union leaders’ letter to Secretary Clinton acknowledges the criticism that “further development of Canada’s oil sands puts in jeopardy U.S. efforts aimed at capping carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses.” It presents as an answer a position that has often been stated by spokespeople for US labor: “Comprehensive energy and environmental policy should strive to address climate concerns while simultaneously ensuring adequate supplies of reliable energy and promoting energy independence and national security.”

Such a “balanced policy” sounds reasonable. But the problem is that in practice it means putting off the necessary sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for further decades, guaranteeing that the climate catastrophe will grow worse and worse.

Indeed, the letter goes on to say, “Alternative energy sources are generally still in developmental stages; therefore it is likely the U.S. Consumer will remain substantially dependent on carbon fuels for the next several decades.”

Any policy based on the assumption that the US will “remain substantially dependent on carbon fuels for the next several decades” is condemning American working people, all Americans, and indeed the entire world to a fate worse than humanity has ever known.

Are the job claims real or fraudulent?

The letter to Hilary Clinton states that the pipeline will “spur the creation of 118,000 jobs.” The headline of a statement by the American Petroleum Institute reads “API: Keystone XL Pipeline bill will create hundreds of thousands of new American jobs.” The It quotes an API official that “US jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035.”

How many jobs will the pipeline really produce? The US State Department examined that question in its draft environmental impact statement on the project. Here’s what it found, based on information supplied it by the Pipeline builder TransCanada:

Construction of the proposed Project, including the pipeline and pump stations, would result in hiring approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers over the 3 year construction period. As indicated above, it is expected that roughly 10 to 15 percent of the construction workforce would be hired from local labor markets, thus 500 to 900 local workers throughout the entire region of influence would be hired.

After the State Department issued its report, TransCanada commissioned a consultant named the Perryman Group. The job estimates it came up were roughly 13 times greater than those from the environmental impact study. The following table compares the State Department figures with those of the TransCanada-funded Perryman Group:

The Perryman Group figures added in estimates for “indirect job creation.” How reliable are these figures? Take just one example: The State Department, based on figures supplied by TransCanada, said that the pipeline would create 938-1560 construction jobs in Nebraska. The Perryman Group study claimed that this would create 7,551 “indirect” jobs, including more than 800 retail jobs. So every every pipeline worker is expected to create from one-half to one full job for a retail worker! No wonder the Perryman Group study includes — in fine print — the following disclaimer: “This news release may contain certain information that is forward looking and is subject to important risks and uncertainties. . . . Readers are cautioned top not place undue reliance on this forward looking information.”

What should labor do?

In the midst of the Great Recession, workers and their unions are desperate for jobs. Knowing this, and faced with strong public opposition, TransCanada came and dangled what appeared to be a sweet deal before major unions: a “project labor agreement” which would provide the hiring of union workers under union conditions on much of the project. They also loudly trumpeted their study claiming that the project would create 118,000 jobs — when the company’s own figures showed that the project would actually hire only 5,000 to 6,000 workers over the 3 year construction period, a large proportion of them not high-paid, high-skill jobs but low-skilled, low-paid pick and shovel jobs.

For a long time, many American unions — including the Teamsters’ — similarly supported oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But then the Teamsters’ went through a reappraisal and withdrew from the coalition that supported the drilling. Union president James Hoffa explained why:

Global warming is for real. Air pollution is killing people and making our children sick. And you know what? We share some of the blame. In the past, we were forced to make a false choice. The choice was: Good Jobs or a Clean Environment. We were told no pollution meant no jobs. If we wanted clean air, the economy would suffer and jobs would be sent overseas. Well guess what? We let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. We didn’t enforce environmental regulations and the economy still went in the toilet. The middle class got decimated and the environment is on the brink of disaster. Well I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! No more false divides. The future, if we are to prosper as a nation, will lie in a green economy.

Clean renewable energy and energy conservation are cheaper than new, unconventional fossil fuels. They are available right now. Many studies have shown that dollar for dollar they produce far more jobs — including jobs for the very workers who might find jobs on the Keystone XL pipeline. Labor should reconsider the pipeline the same way the Teamsters’ reconsidered oil drilling in the Arctic. If labor is to use its political clout to secure more jobs, the best way to do so is to fight for a new energy economy that rapidly phases out carbon-emitting fossil fuels and even more rapidly replaces them with renewable energy and conservation. That is the only real way to provide “better days” for American workers.

[For more on green jobs, see Blue-Green Alliance Jobs21 campaign and Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy.]