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Maggie Trowe: Pipeline Debate Ignores Energy Needs of World’s Toilers

Maggie Trowe
Maggie Trowe
From Maggie Trowe at The Militant, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party:

In the name of protecting the environment, opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline — which would increase the capacity to deliver tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada, and fracked oil from North Dakota to refineries and ports in Texas — turn their back on the interests of workers worldwide, especially the burning need for electrification in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

The fight for an expanding alliance of workers and farmers from Europe and the U.S. to China, India and Nigeria is only possible if our conditions are converging, if the toilers have the ability to get beyond the all-consuming battle just to survive. Electrification is critical to advance their struggles against the ravages of imperialism and to take on their national rulers along the road to power.

At the same time, workers need to build strong unions that fight to defend land and labor from devastation by the oil barons, rail bosses and other capitalists, who produce for profit at the expense of workers’ life and limb and the environment.

A debate has been raging in Canada and the U.S. since 2008, when TransCanada Corp. proposed construction of the 1,179-mile pipeline extension from Alberta to Kansas, over what position workers should take. The framework of the debate, however, is nationalist and class-collaborationist on both sides of the border. Most arguments, pro and con, start with what “we” in the U.S. or Canada need, not with the interests of the workers and farmers of the world.

There are already 57,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. that transport crude oil to refineries and shipping ports. TransCanada sends up to 700,000 barrels per day from Alberta to Texas through the original Keystone pipeline, completed in 2010, and a new segment that just opened in January.

The only reason for the hold-up on the Keystone extension is that it crosses the border between Canada and the U.S., thus requiring a permit from the U.S. president before construction can proceed.

A bill approving the pipeline passed the House of Representatives and a version passed the Senate Jan. 29. A reconciled bill should be on President Barack Obama’s desk within days. A White House spokesman said Obama will veto it.

World’s toilers need electricity

Most environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Bold Nebraska and Nebraskans for Peace — say the pipeline’s potential to contaminate the surrounding land, rivers and the underground Ogallala aquifer, the source of water for much of the Midwest, is so daunting that it can’t be allowed to be built.

They warn of catastrophic global warming from increased use of fossil fuels introducing more carbon into the atmosphere, and decry the extraction of tar sand oil, calling it “the dirtiest oil on earth.” They counterpose developing so-called green, renewable energy such as wind and solar power. But these methods of energy production are totally inadequate to supply energy for North America, let alone the world. And under capitalism they are toxic and energy-consuming in their production and disposal.

Today, in a world dominated by imperialist oppression and exploitation, more than 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity and 2.6 billion have to cook by burning wood or similar fuels, producing smoke that causes millions of deaths each year.

Access to electricity opens up the development of industry and modern agriculture and the growth of the working class. It is essential for sanitation, modern health care and refrigeration, which extend life expectancy.

Electrification is a prerequisite for the development of a working-class movement — the ability to read, think and share experiences with others and to study the history of workers’ struggles and the lessons of revolutionary battles, from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the 1959 victory of the Cuban toilers against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship.

The Nation, whose masthead says it has been “instigating progress since 1865,” joins virtually all bourgeois liberal and left currents here in opposing the pipeline. Its editors also oppose power-poor countries having access to petroleum. An article titled “What’s Wrong with the Electrify Africa Act” last May, published jointly by the Nation and Foreign Policy in Focus, condemned U.S. policy on energy development in sub-Saharan Africa because it “leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels.” In other words, let them live in the dark.

In a New York Times op-ed Feb. 2, Martin O’Malley, former Democratic governor of Maryland, says generation of energy by fossil fuels must be limited today to encourage “supporting the development of new energy technologies and fighting climate change.”

The Communist Party, Workers World and the Party for Socialism and Liberation all oppose the construction of the pipeline.

Some Nebraska farmers also oppose the Keystone XL, but pipeline opponents exaggerate farmers’ resistance. TransCanada has obtained easements — voluntary permission, with financial compensation, to use land — from 88 percent of Nebraskan landowners on the pipeline’s route. In Montana and South Dakota the company has obtained 100 percent of the easements it needs.

Nationalist claims in U.S., Canada

Many U.S. union leaderships are proponents of the pipeline extension, including officials of the Laborer’s International Union of North America. They argue it will be “good for America,” creating up to 20,000 jobs and reducing “our” dependence on Mideast oil.

Speaking in opposition to Keystone XL Nov. 14, Obama said the pipeline is about “providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else.”

On the other side of the border, Canadian nationalism and anti-U.S. positions are common in the labor officialdom. In a pamphlet titled “Stop Sending Canadian Jobs Down the Pipeline!” the Alberta Federation of Labor calls for building oil refineries in Alberta instead of sending crude through the Keystone to Houston refineries or through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to be shipped from British Columbia to Chinese refineries.

With or without pipelines, tar sand oil is being extracted in Alberta, and much of it is being sent to the United States, primarily by rail.

In a discussion on the pipeline, safety and the energy needs of workers around the world in a coffee shop in Calgary, Alberta, Feb. 1, Gokhan Kavakli, a flooring installer, told the Militant he agreed workers need to start with the world. “We have to think about how to develop the resources and who controls them,” he said. “How many billions in aid and charity have been spent on Africa in the last 30 years? It’s the system. Africans could have built a new Africa by now with the money.”

“I know unions make a difference. Look at the rail workers in British Columbia,” Atakan Beyi, a heating and refrigeration worker and unionist, said in the same discussion. (See article on page 5.) “It’s the big companies that are the problem on health and safety and the environment. They don’t care about us.”

The only road to ensure safe conditions in the production and transportation of energy is building strong unions capable of wresting control over working conditions out of the hands of the bosses; insisting on the protection of those who live in communities near the extraction, processing and transport of all fuels; and preventing the profit-driven capitalists from contaminating the land, air and water.

The successful fight by rail unionists against attempts by BNSF Railway to institute one-person “crews” points the way forward. Their victory shows the potential for labor to take the moral high ground and defeat measures that endanger workers, communities and the environment.

Pipeline transport safer than rail

Even under capitalism, which puts profits over protection of both human life and nature, pipeline transport of crude is safer than rail. According to the Association of American Railroads, the rate of hazardous-material spills is 2.7 times higher by rail transport than pipeline.

Fracking and other new technologies have opened the door for energy bosses to boost oil production past the capacities of existing pipelines. The rail bosses have jumped in, making trains longer, postponing shipments of farmers’ grain to prioritize crude oil trains and pushing to cut the crew to one person.

“On my run from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Ottumwa, Iowa, and back, I meet six or more oil trains each leg of the trip,” railroad engineer Jack Krueger, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, told the Militant.

Oil train spills are increasing, the worst being the 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people. More oil was spilled in 2013 than in the previous 37 years.

Rail bosses fiercely resisted government regulations pressing them to replace their large stocks of rupture-prone tank cars with new reinforced models. Rail workers’ unions have pushed for rapid replacement, but the boss-friendly Department of Transportation has given the companies a free pass until 2017.

Working class and safety

With pipeline transport as with rail, technology exists to operate more safely. Robots called “smart pigs” can detect corrosion. Control valves can be installed that automatically shut off the flow if a drop in pressure indicates a leak. The extent to which safety measures are used, however, is decided by the strength of the union movement and pressure from the working class more broadly.

The question for working people around energy extraction and production is not whether one or another method — from nuclear fission of uranium to fracking shale oil to mining tar sands to building solar panels or wind generators — has downsides and hazards. They all do. The question is how much control over the process can the working-class movement wrest from the imperialist ruling families and other capitalist exploiters on the road to taking power away from them and building a society based on human solidarity and the defense of land and labor in every corner of the globe.

The struggle to provide the energy toilers need worldwide to advance culture and fighting capacity is key to strengthening working-class internationalism and solidarity. And it goes hand-in-hand with rebuilding our unions to fight for control over working conditions on the job.

About Post Author

Jed Ziggler

Jed Ziggler is a Libertarian and alternative party activist from Pennsylvania. Email news tips to

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