While debate continues over whether the United States will approve a proposed oil conduit from Canada to the Gulf Coast, the segment from Cushing to the Texas Gulf Coast is halfway toward completion and could be transporting oil by year's end.
President Barack Obama traveled to Oklahoma nearly a year ago to tout construction of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline from the Cushing oil hub to Houston-area refineries. A decision on whether to allow the longer pipeline awaits the results of a U.S. State Department review that is necessary because the oil would be carried across an international border.
Nearly 4,000 workers in Oklahoma and Texas are aligning and welding a 485-mile section, TransCanada spokesman David Dodson said. “We're right at peak right now,” he said.
TransCanada applied for a federal permit almost five years ago, but its construction has been controversial. Environmentalists warn of potential spills and say extracting and using tar sands oil, which the pipeline would carry from Alberta, would worsen climate change. Unions and TransCanada say the project will bring thousands of jobs and bolster the U.S. oil supply from friends and neighbors.
Obama rejected the permit last year but left the door open for a retry that the State Department is considering. A decision could come by summer.
Because the Gulf Coast segment doesn't cross an international border, its approval process was simpler, and work began last August, Dodson said. When completed, the segment will carry 700,000 gallons of oil daily from the existing pipeline network centered around Cushing to the southern refineries.
About 850 laborers are at work in Oklahoma and 3,000 in Texas. Most are temporary contracts.
Pipeliners Local 798, a national union based in Tulsa, has about 250 of its members working on the pipeline's northern two-thirds, union business manager Danny Hendrix said. He estimated about half of those welders are from Oklahoma.
“These jobs are really good-paying jobs,” Hendrix said. “They provide not only a good living wage, they provide health care and they also provide pension.”
TransCanada has stressed those benefits, saying the pipeline could support thousands of people in economically rough times. Hendrix said the jobs were appreciated but not as urgent as portrayed.
“We've been very fortunate in the pipeline business,” he said. “When the rest of the economy was in terrible shape, we've been doing very well. It's not a deal breaker or a killer for us if we don't get it.”
Work started in Oklahoma about two months ago. Dodson said protests against it have come with it. At least two so-called “direct actions” involved people locking themselves to construction equipment to prevent its use, leading to 10 arrests in central Oklahoma.
Such civil disobedience tactics have become a mainstay of the pipeline's opposition. A rally near the White House on Feb. 17 drew 35,000 protesters, organizers said, a few days after celebrities and prominent environmental activists tied themselves to the White House fence.
“What we're working on ... is trying to amplify the voices of people who aren't represented by the national discourse,” said Jay Morris, spokesman for the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance in Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, Hendrix said pipeline workers with his union will keep an eye on Washington. “If the permit gets approved, we'll start construction on the northern end of it immediately,” he said.