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Energy Infrastructure Debate Unites Business and Labor Against ‘Keep It in the Ground’ Activists

By choosing to produce more energy at home, America has opened the doors to new opportunities and growth across the economy. The surge in domestic oil and natural gas production has lowered household energy bills, cut the cost of manufacturing goods in the United States and supported the livelihoods of millions of working families.

There is also a huge infrastructure component to America’s energy renaissance. As oil and gas production output has increased, so has the demand for pipelines to transport oil and gas from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. Tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines have already been built, with dozens more projects currently under construction or in the permitting process. Each one of them represents a major investment in the nation’s infrastructure and job security for construction workers.

Support for these projects has been widespread, especially among business and labor groups that often find themselves on opposite sides of major policy debates. But a vocal minority of environmental activist groups has fought these pipeline projects at every turn. Rallying under the slogan of “Keep It in the Ground,” groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club believe blocking pipelines will help bring about their ultimate goal of a total oil and gas development ban.

Two projects in particular — the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines — have captured national attention in recent years. So where do these projects currently stand, and what does that say about the broader discussion of energy and environmental issues in America today?

Dakota Access: Open for Business

From mid-2016 until earlier this year, anti-oil and gas activists set up camps in Morton County, North Dakota, to block the final stages of construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, designed to carry Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, had already received construction permits at the time of the protest.

After months of delays and protests that turned violent at times, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually ordered the activists to leave before spring snowmelt flooded the camps on the banks of the Missouri River. Officials raced against time to remove scores of abandoned vehicles and enough garbage to fill more than 800 dumpsters before the cars, trucks and trash were swept into the river.

The obvious irony of environmental protesters showing such disregard for the environment generated its own controversy, and after months of mostly sympathetic media attention, activists found themselves on the defensive. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum even asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for financial help after cleanup crews removed more than 24,000 tons of trash, debris and human waste left behind by the protestors. “I respectfully encourage a review of disaster declaration criteria to include intentional human-made disasters,” Gov. Burgum wrote in his request to the president through FEMA.

Construction on the pipeline was completed in April and commercial deliveries began in June after legal challenges were rejected by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Earthjustice, an anti-oil and gas group that serves as a free law firm for the environmental lobby, continues to try to kill the project. A separate lawsuit, filed last year on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is still active and seeks to invalidate the permits and other approvals given to the pipeline.

Despite past legal failures, Earthjustice “will continue to push for the pipeline to be shut down,” the group said in June. But such a move would block more than $20 million a day in oil deliveries, causing a “staggering” economic impact, a coalition of business groups has told the federal judge hearing the case. The new pipeline “plays an integral role in the North Dakota and regional economy, currently transporting over a third of all oil produced in the Bakken region,” warned the groups, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and several energy industry trade organizations.

The protracted fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with similar activist campaigns, have also prompted trade unions to play a bigger public role in advocating for these projects. In July, National Public Radio reported that the campaign against pipelines is turning some pipeline workers “into activists themselves.”

NPR profiled Pipeliners Local Union 798, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is encouraging members to contact lawmakers, sign petitions and attend rallies in support of pipeline projects. “We’re trying to do a job. That’s all we’re trying to do,” pipeline welder and job steward Ed Coker said in an interview for NPR’s All Things Considered. “We certainly are not trying to destroy the environment. You know, I’m as worried about the environment as anybody else.”

Keystone XL: Permitting Process Revived

As the Dakota Access Pipeline opened for business, the review of the Keystone XL Pipeline entered its final stages after years of obstruction and stalling tactics from “Keep It in the Ground” groups and their political allies. Having received its federal approval, the pipeline now faces a state-level permitting process in Nebraska.

Led by San Francisco-based Sierra Club, anti-oil and gas activists are lobbying the Nebraska Public Service Commission to block the final leg of the pipeline. While the project originates in the Canadian province of Alberta, it will also carry Bakken crude oil produced in Montana and North Dakota, giving the Keystone XL pipeline added significance.

Business and labor groups have teamed up to convince Nebraska regulators to approve Keystone XL’s final permits. In a joint statement, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry and two AFL-CIO member unions — the Omaha Federation of Labor and the Omaha and Southwest Iowa Building and Construction Trades — said the “exhaustively studied” project will create thousands of jobs, generate millions of dollars in local property taxes and support a “long term, stable supply of North American energy.”

The construction and ongoing maintenance jobs “are well-paying with good health and pension benefits — exactly the kind that are so desperately needed in today’s economy,” said the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada in testimony to Nebraska state regulators. This kind of bipartisan support, spanning the business community and labor unions, follows similar trends in South Dakota and Montana, where Keystone XL pipeline permits and approvals have already been granted.

Bipartisan Coalition vs. Narrow Opposition

While it will take time for the legal challenges and permitting procedures to resolve themselves, the debate over the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines has already illustrated a much larger trend in energy and environmental politics.

There is broad and deep support for domestic energy production and energy-related infrastructure projects — support that crosses party lines. As for the “Keep It in the Ground” agenda, its support is narrow, shallow and stranded on the fringes of the political spectrum.

No doubt, anti-oil and gas activist groups will probably persist with the “Keep It in the Ground” campaign for some time. But it’s a failing strategy, and at some point, the organizers and funders of these groups will have to go back to the drawing board.

 

About the author: Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders focused on energy policy. Before going into advocacy, he was a reporter for 15 years and covered energy policy for Bloomberg News and Argus Media. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax.

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