Why labor should oppose the pipeline

March 7, 2013

The Obama administration is rumored to be ready to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline--a project pushed by the multibillion-dollar TransCanada Corp.--that, if completed, would pump huge amounts of toxic oil sludge known as "tar sands" from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Activists across the U.S. and Canada have mobilized to oppose the pipeline and its many threats to the environment and public health. Though the AFL-CIO has come out in support of the pipeline, National Nurses United (NNU) is standing with the movement fighting the Keystone project. In an article that appeared at NNU's website, Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of NNU, the nation's largest organization of nurses, makes the case for unions to stand up against the pipeline.

AS PRESSURE from the fossil-fuel industry, conservative Canadian and U.S. politicians, and some construction unions mounts on President Obama to green-light the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project, a growing coalition has a different message.

On February 17, tens of thousands rallied against the pipeline in cities across the U.S., including San Francisco--a testament to the climate movement, ranchers and farmers, First Nations leaders, most Canadian unions, some U.S. unions (including my nurses' organization), transport and domestic workers, and young people who are rightfully alarmed over the global impact of Keystone XL.

For nurses, who already see patients sickened by the adverse effects of pollution and infectious diseases linked to air pollutants and the spread of water and food-borne pathogens associated with environmental contaminants, Keystone XL presents a clear and present danger.

First, extracting tar sands is more complex than conventional oil drilling, requiring vast amounts of water and chemicals. The discharge accumulates in highly toxic waste ponds and risks entering water sources that may end up in drinking water, as is already occurring.

Protesters in North Carolina call on Barack Obama to say "no" to the Keystone XL pipeline
Protesters in North Carolina call on Barack Obama to say "no" to the Keystone XL pipeline (Will Wysong)

Second, the corrosive liquefied bitumen form of crude the pipeline would carry is especially susceptible to leaks that can spill into farmland, water aquifers and rivers on route, threatening an array of adverse health outcomes.

Public health costs from fossil-fuel production in the U.S. through contaminants in our air, rivers, lakes, oceans and food supply are already pegged at more than $120 billion every year by the National Academy of Sciences. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that exposure to particulate matter emitted from fossil-fuel plants is a cause of heart attacks, long-term respiratory illness including asthma, cancer, developmental delays and reproductive problems. Global-warming inducted higher air temperatures can also increase bacteria-related food poisoning, such as salmonella, and animal-borne diseases like the West Nile virus.

That's just the tip of the melting iceberg, given the planet-altering consequences of rising sea levels, intensified weather events including droughts, floods and super storms already in evidence, and mass dislocation of coastal populations and starvation that may well follow our failing to stem climate change.

Far more jobs would be created by converting to a green economy. As economist Robert Pollin put it in his book Back to Full Employment, every $1 million spent on renewable clean energy sources creates 16.8 jobs, compared to just 5.2 jobs created by the same spending on fossil-fuel production.

And, as one person acerbically commented on a recent New York Times article, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Further, stumping for the pipeline puts labor in league with the many of the most anti-union, far-right corporate interests in the U.S., such as the oil billionaire Koch brothers and energy corporations, abetted by the politicians who carry their agenda.

The future for labor should not be scrambling for elusive crumbs thrown down by corporate partners, but advocating for the larger public interest, as unions practiced in the 1930s and 1940s, the period of labor's greatest growth and the resulting emergence of a more egalitarian society.

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