The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been publicized as a major jobs creator, but recent unemployment figures indicate that few of those jobs will go to people who live along the project's route.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 57 counties in the pipeline's path have some of the nation's lowest unemployment rates. And since most of the construction jobs will go to skilled union laborers, only a fraction of the local people who are looking for work would likely qualify for those positions.
If approved, the crude oil pipeline would cross six states—Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas—on its way from the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. According to November data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates in the majority of the counties along the route were between 2.0 and 5.7 percent, much lower than the national rate of 8.7 percent. (The lowest national unemployment rate in the past 20 years was 4.0 percent in 2000.)
Only six of the Keystone XL counties had unemployment rates at or above the national rate of 8.7 percent.
"There's no question that some communities are much better off than others," said Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, the company that wants the build the pipeline. "That's fortunate for them."
TransCanada is "aware of the importance of hiring local," he said. "We hire as many [local] contractors and service providers as we can."
Click here for a chart that lists job figures and unemployment rates in the 57 counties on the Keystone XL route.
Residents along the route of another TransCanada pipeline told InsideClimate News that they didn't see much in way of employment or increased revenues for restaurants and other local services. That pipeline, simply called Keystone, began operating in 2010 and runs through some of the same states—South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma—as Keystone XL.
Dan Holub, a Marion County, Kan. commissioner, said the project did little for his constituents. "They promised us all kinds of jobs. And when it came down to construction, they were all union jobs."
Local truckers and heavy equipment operators were turned away because they didn't belong to a union, Holub said.
In South Dakota, the Keystone crosses Raymond and Lillian Anderson's farm near the town of Langford (pop. 300). The Andersons oppose the pipeline because they fear an oil spill could someday contaminate their water and land. And they say the project brought few benefits to the local economy.
"[TransCanada] came through and promised [Langford] all kinds of money...at the most they bought 20 meals," Lillian Anderson said. "They had their own repair truck, they had their own gas truck, their [own] food."
She and her husband know of only three people in their two-county region who were hired for the project.
The Andersons' neighbor Kent Moeckly said the construction workers drove cars with license plates from Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Minnesota and Florida—"everywhere but here."
"I'd say 95% of the [workers] were from out of state," Raymond Anderson said.
The Andersons assumed most of the local jobs went to Aberdeen, a city of 26,000 about an hour's drive from Langford. But Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen said he doesn't know of a single Aberdeen resident who was hired for the project.
In 2009, while TransCanada was building the first Keystone pipeline, Aberdeen's unemployment rate was just three percent. Few people were looking for jobs, and those who did had trouble keeping them, Levsen said. In fact, Aberdeen's local wind turbine manufacturer was struggling to find qualified workers—many who applied either failed the drug test or simply stopped showing up to work, he said.
"When you consider that, it [becomes] more apparent that the pipeline company wouldn't find welders or people with the skills they need," Levsen said.
Aberdeen did receive some economic benefits from the first Keystone: TransCanada used the city as a staging ground for one of its construction crews. During the summer of 2009, more than 300 construction workers shopped, ate and lived in Aberdeen.
Some of the workers rented houses and trailers, Levsen said. Others stayed at the local campground. "Mainly we had to accommodate a few hundred young to middle-aged men...I'm sure it was an economic boost somehow, [but] the value is overstated."
City attorney Adam Altman compared the experience to hosting extra tourists. The overall effect on Aberdeen was "minimal," he said.
Levsen estimates that the workers brought in an extra $20,000 in sales tax, with most of the money going to bars, gun shops and men's clothing stores. "We're glad they were here, but it's not like [it was] a boom town economy."