Environmentalists and unions who have lent their support to US President Joe Biden are now on opposing sides in a battle over the construction of major pipeline projects between Canada and the United States.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. The Biden administration aims to move the U.S. economy towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and its first steps towards that goal included the cancellation of a permit for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline (KXL ) and reduced leasing of oil and gas.
The reaction from Biden supporters, however, illustrates the challenge of managing the effect of the energy transition on different communities.
As climate activists celebrated KXL’s demise, unions, reeling from falling global oil prices, rallied to prevent the derailment of ongoing projects.
Mike Knisley, secretary and treasurer of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, which endorsed Biden, said he relied on state officials to speak to the president of how his quick climate announcements affect the support of his union members.
“I tell them they have to come back with Biden and ask if this is really going to happen on day two of the new administration,” Knisley said. “I am so frustrated that there is almost no middle ground [on pipelines] with the environmental community.
Climate groups have seen success in recent years, persuading big investors to cut their holdings in fossil fuel industries, and pressuring banks to shy away from investments in Arctic drilling.
But Biden has been endorsed by a number of key unions that work on pipelines, refineries and other energy facilities, including the International Teamsters and the North American building trades. These unions celebrated the victory of a pro-Labor president, but opposed the Keystone decision and are lining up against threats against other pipelines.
Environmentalists see Biden as an ally in the battle to wean the United States off fossil fuels and prevent carbon-intensive heavy crude imports from Canada’s vast tar sands. They are stepping up efforts to shut down three other pipelines: Enbridge Inc’s Line 3 and Line 5 and Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Unlike KXL, these three lines are all currently in service. Enbridge lines deliver crude oil and fuels from Canada, while DAPL sends crude from North Dakota to the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.
Legal and regulatory battles threaten the three pipelines.
A White House spokesperson said the Biden administration was reviewing a court ruling last week that upheld orders for a lengthy environmental review for DAPL. He declined to comment on Enbridge’s two pipelines.
Enbridge has more than doubled the capacity of the Line 3 to 760,000 barrels per day (b / d), a project backed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.
To be sure, not all unions supported Biden. Phillip Wallace, a sales representative for Pipeliners Union 798 in Minnesota, said his union, which supports former President Donald Trump, is concerned the new administration is trying to stop the project.
“We have full construction work right now in Minnesota and I’m concerned this new administration is throwing an adjustable wrench in our gears,” Wallace said. His union plans to hold rallies to support construction once restrictions on COVID-19 are eased.
Environmental protesters on Friday halted construction on a Line 3 yard in Minnesota by locking itself between concrete barrels, one of many disruptions so far this year that has resulted in dozens of arrests.
“If KXL can’t pass the climate test for Biden, Line 3 certainly can’t,” said Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, an indigenous environmental group.
The unions are also stepping up support for Enbridge’s Line 5, which runs under the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet, and ships 540,000 bpd of light crude oil and propane. Campaigners want to decommission the 68-year-old line, while Enbridge tries to modernize it to protect the strait.
Enbridge received a state permit last week to build a tunnel to house the line; it still needs clearance from the US Army Corps of Engineers.
In November Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked the Strait pipeline’s license and ordered it closed. The United Steelworkers, which endorsed Biden, tried to gain support from lawmakers to keep the line going.
“USW strongly supports both the Line 5 replacement segment project and the continued operation of the existing pipeline,” he told Reuters news agency in a statement. “Hundreds of United Steelworkers and their communities depend on the good jobs supporting the families that Line 5 supports.”