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Will Keystone XL Pipeline Create Many Construction Jobs? (Op-Ed)

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Anthony Swift is an attorney in the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the NRDC blog Switchboard. Swift contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Last week, President Obama commented on the limited job-creation potential from the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. The remarks generated a response — from many in the media and Keystone project backers — that obscured the President's point.

Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline continue to pitch the project as a national jobs creator. President Obama has countered that in an economy of 150 million people, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be a "blip relative to the need." The President observed that the operation of the Keystone XL would only generate about 50 jobs while its construction would generate about two thousand jobs over a year or two.

The construction of Keystone XL, which would generate 3,950 person-years of work according to the U.S. Department of State, has a job creation potential on par with building a shopping mall or the campus renovations the University of Oregon announced last week.

Moreover, after it's built, Keystone XL will only employ between 35 and 50 people — and some of those positions will be filled in Canada. That's a small fraction of the long-term employment benefits one could expect from a shopping mall.

By pitching the tar sands industry's pet project as a national jobs generator in an economy of 150 million, Keystone XL's Congressional boosters are incurring a huge opportunity cost on behalf of constituents who need jobs, not empty promises from the oil industry.

While the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is not a national jobs creator, it would be a significant new source of climate pollution, adding 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over its estimated lifespan. For that reason it fails the President's climate test and should be rejected.

The controversy surrounding the President's comments on the construction jobs associated with Keystone XL comes down to the critique presented in an update by Washington Post Fact Checker on July 30. The President said the construction of Keystone XL would "create about two thousand jobs over one to two years," while the Fact Checker believes it would have been more accurate instead to say that the project would employ 3,950 workers for a year.

Whether the construction of Keystone XL will generate 3,950 person-years of work for one year or 1,975 person-years of work for each of two years, the reality is that the President is right — Keystone XL is not the national jobs creator its proponents are making it out to be: The Fortuna Galleria Mall project on Long Island generated about 3,000 construction jobs, according to the New York Times; the University of Oregon's campus renovations are expected to generate about 2,700 construction jobs, and yet have gone largely unobserved by Congress; the Gulf Coast Galleria in D'Iberville, Mississippi is expected to create fifty times more permanent jobs than Keystone XL, according to the Washington Examiner.

Clarifying the confusions around Keystone XL's job estimates

The controversy about Keystone XL's employment potential lies almost entirely in how different interests describe define the word 'jobs.' As folks who work in construction know well, the nature of their profession generally requires working on a series of short-term contracts over the course of a year. But when talking about jobs on a national scale, there must be a standardized way to discuss work across different industries in a manner that is intuitive to the public.

The aforementioned jobs estimate from the State Department comes from the agency's Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for the Keystone XL project, which outlines the number of construction workers per location, with a construction period for each state.

If we look at how many 'work years' the construction of Keystone XL generates (by multiplying the number of workers by the weeks of work and dividing by fifty two for the weeks in a year), the data come together this way:

Montana: 4,000 construction contracts for an average of 19 weeks = 1,462 work-years

South Dakota: 3,500 construction workers for an average of 20 weeks = 1,346 work-years

Nebraska: 2,700 construction workers for an average of 19.5 weeks = 1,013 work-years

Kansas: 200 construction workers for an average of 33.5 weeks = 129 work-years

All together, the total is 3,950 person-years — but of course, this is a necessary equivalency. While Keystone XL will be built over two years, its owners at TransCanada will not hire construction workers for two-year — or even one-year — contracts. In fact, Sate Department data show 99 percent of construction workers will work on twenty-week contracts: Keystone XL would generate 10,400 part-year contracts to achieve the person-years total.

Adding to the confusion, TransCanada counts a part-year contract as a job. The State Department's definition is as follows, according to its Keystone XL Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: "A job consists of one position that is filled for one year. A job could consist of two positions filled for a period of six months each, three positions filled for four months each, or any combination that sums to a year of employment."

If permitted, TransCanada plans to build Keystone XL over two years. In this case, you can see where the President was coming from when he said that Keystone XL would generate two thousand jobs for two years — each year the pipeline was under construction, the project would generate 1,975 person-years of work.

In an update to its July 30 post, the Washington Post Fact Checker takes exception to that logic, arguing that you could just as easily say the project's construction would employ 7,800 workers over six months. That's one way to put it. If TransCanada planned to build Keystone XL in six months, that would be the most accurate way to state the situation.

However, TransCanada structured its project to be built over two years and the State Department defined a job as a position filled for one year (or four three-month contracts adding up to a year of employment).

Putting differences in semantics aside, whether one considers Keystone XL as generating 7,800 six-month contracts or 1,975 per-years of work over two years, the reality is this project is not a major national job creator.

Keystone XL isn't going to substantially increase U.S. employment, but it would substantially increase carbon pollution at a time the nation needs to be reducing its emissions. There is a better path forward for our country.

In fact, just last year an organization of over 800 business leaders announced the creation of 110,000 jobs in clean energy and clean transportation. Those jobs are helping to revive American manufacturing, cutting energy costs for homeowners and businesses, and scaling up new industries to provide a cleaner, more sustainable future.

That's a job plan upon which to build a legacy.

This article was adapted from the post Putting Keystone XL tar sands pipeline's jobs numbers in context on the blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on Live Science.

Anthony Swift