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Opening Biden moves on climate provoke fierce backlash from unions, Democrats in energy states

"The environmental left is leading the agenda" at the White House on energy, environment issues, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

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Oil pumpjack
Oil pumpjack
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Updated: January 27, 2021 - 10:55pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

He said he was going to do it, and now he's doing it.

President Joe Biden vowed throughout the 2020 presidential campaign that he would come down hard on fossil fuels in an effort to address the "existential threat" of climate change, and now that he's in the White House, he's following through on his promises.

With a single stroke of his pen last week, Biden killed an extension of the Keystone XL pipeline, which carries Canadian crude oil into the U.S. Upwards of $3 billion of an overall cost of $8 billion has already been spent — that now appears lost. More than that, the pipeline was expected to eventually transport 830,000 barrels of oil into the U.S., which would keep prices at the pumps low.

But Biden said climate change is more important than oil — or jobs.

"The Keystone XL pipeline disserves the U.S. national interest," Biden's executive order said. "The United States and the world face a climate crisis. That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory. At home, we will combat the crisis with an ambitious plan to build back better, designed to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs."

With the project now dead, up to 11,000 well-paying union jobs went up in smoke — representing some  $2.2 billion in lost wages. Keystone XL already employs about 2,000 workers, including members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices, the Teamsters and other major unions. 

Unions routinely support Democrats, giving hundreds of millions to candidates each election cycle, but Biden's move drew some fierce criticism. 

"In revoking this permit, the Biden Administration has chosen to listen to the voices of fringe activists instead of union members and the American consumer on Day 1," Mark McManus, general president of the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA), said Monday. "When built with union labor by the men and women of the United Association, pipelines like Keystone XL remain the safest and most efficient modes of energy transportation in the world."

"Sadly, the Biden Administration has now put thousands of union workers out of work,"  the UA statement continued. "For the average American family, it means energy costs will go up and communities will no longer see the local investments that come with pipeline construction." 

LIUNA, the Laborers' International Union of North America, was particularly displeased.

"The Biden Administration's decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit on day one of his presidency is both insulting and disappointing to the thousands of hard-working LIUNA members who will lose good-paying, middle class family-supporting jobs," the union said in a statement. "By blocking this 100 percent union project, and pandering to environmental extremists, a thousand union jobs will immediately vanish and 10,000 additional jobs will be foregone.

"We support the President's campaign to 'build back better.' But for union members affected by this decision, there are no renewable energy jobs that come even close to replacing the wages and benefits the Keystone XL project would have provided. Killing good union jobs on day one with nothing to replace them, is not building back better." 

The North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) were equally miffed.

"North America's Building Trades Unions are deeply disappointed in the decision to cancel the Keystone XL permit on the President's first official day in office," NABTU said in a statement on Jan. 21. "Environmental ideologues have now prevailed, and over a thousand union men and women have been terminated from employment on the project.

"On a historic day that is filled with hope and optimism for so many Americans and people around the world, tens of thousands of workers are left to wonder what the future holds for them. In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed 400 thousand American lives and has wreaked havoc on the economic security and standard of living of tens of millions more, we must all stand in their shoes and acknowledge the uncertainty and anxiety this government action has caused." 

But it isn't just the pipeline. 

On Biden's first day in office, interim Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega issued an order freezing all new oil and gas drilling permits on federal land for 60 days. The order prompted backlash from officials in New Mexico as well as leaders of the Ute Indian tribe in Utah, where roughly two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government.

"During his inauguration, President Biden spoke about bringing our nation together," Carlsbad, N.M. Mayor Dale Janway told the Associated Press on Friday. "Eliminating drilling on public lands will cost thousands of New Mexicans their jobs and destroy what's left of our state's economy. How does that bring us together? Environmental efforts should be fair and well-researched, not knee-jerk mandates that just hurt an already impoverished state."

Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the moratorium could be devastating. "I think we're going to see companies choosing not to invest in New Mexico and take their jobs and drilling to Texas just 3 miles away," Pearce told the AP. "They can just scoot across the border where they don't have federal lands."

Republicans are beginning to take aim at vulnerable Democrats in states like Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania, where many jobs depend on oil or natural gas. 

Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. Susan Wild, Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright, Virginia Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria and Texas Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar, Colin Allred and Filemon Vela all voted for a return to the Paris Climate Agreement, which many economists say will be bad for U.S. businesses.

Team Biden is making little effort to dissuade Americans that their moves will cost U.S. jobs.

On Wednesday, Energy Secretary-designate Jennifer Granholm acknowledged that jobs may be "sacrificed" as a result of Biden's actions. "I think the president's plan of building back better … would create more jobs in energy, clean energy, than the jobs that might be sacrificed," Granholm said in her Senate confirmation hearing.

And the same day, former Sen. John Kerry, who was tapped by Biden to head up climate change efforts, promised fossil fuel workers "better choices" in lieu of lost jobs:  "What President Biden wants to do is make sure that those folks have better choices," said the former secretary of state. "That they can be the people to go to work to make the solar panels.”

Also on Wednesday, Biden signed more executive orders on climate change, but then declared, "Let me clear, we're not going to ban fracking" — despite a firm pledge to do just that during the 2020 campaign. That may be next. 

Meanwhile, some of Biden's orders have hit the coal industry, which is causing friction in West Virginia.

"In the first week of a Biden administration … the president is really taking a wrecking ball to many of the states that have oil, gas, coal manufacturing jobs," said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican. "That's going to have a real detrimental impact, especially as the American economy is coming out of COVID-19, a pandemic."

"I think he is kicking the American people when they're down economically, and it is not a message of unity that he has been talking about," he said.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas drillers in Western states, said the freeze on drilling on federal lands could be devastating, with states like Utah, Wyoming and North Dakota taking the hardest hits.

"The environmental left is leading the agenda at the White House when it comes to energy and environment issues,'' she told Bloomberg News. "Clearly Biden has made a political calculation. It says we are willing to sacrifice livelihoods in western states to placate the environmental left."

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