Rolling blackouts in Texas have put the importance of oil pipelines into perspective, business executives say.
Ryan Palazzo, a former chief operating officer of a pipeline construction company and a resident of Houston, received text messages on Feb. 15 about rolling blackouts to protect the state’s electricity grid, which was strained by a massive winter storm that brought record-low temperatures and heavy snow. Millions have been affected since.
“It’s not because there’s not enough natural gas. It’s because of the switch to renewables. They’re not able to, in the short term, keep the grid stable. It’s unfortunate, but energy is essential to everything that we do,” said Palazzo, who was laid off in November, right after the election.
Following the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline in July 2020, the owner of his company had a strong sense that the Keystone XL (KXL) project would be canceled as well and decided to downsize, according to Palazzo.
Biden’s executive order revoking the KXL permit was “obviously targeting a certain industry without real basis,” Palazzo said. “In fact, a political rather than a logical move, contrary to life here in America.”
Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) data show that Texas has consistently increased electricity generation by wind farms, to 25 percent of total electricity capacity in January 2021 from 3 percent in 2007. Last year was the first that renewable sources generated more electricity than coal in Texas.
“This record cold is not only compelling customers to increase their power usage to stay warm; it’s also icing wind turbines and straining our natural-gas powered resources,” Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea of the Public Utility Commission of Texas said in a statement calling for energy conservation on Feb. 14.
There’s no magic or silver bullet when it comes to energy, Palazzo said. Renewable energy, in particular wind and solar, is intermittent. A solar power plant uses 100 times the amount of land as a traditional power plant, while a wind power plant requires up to 1,000 times more. They also need rare-earth metal components, which take a significant amount of mining.
“The [pipeline] spills are very, very, very rare. I think the public has just not been educated and honestly, haven’t taken the time to learn the facts about the renewables and what we do in the oil and gas,” Palazzo said.
In addition to KXL, Canadian company Enbridge’s pipelines, known as Line 5 and Line 3, also face protests and lawsuits. Line 5 passes the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Environmental organizations are urging the Biden administration to cancel Line 3, arguing that it is another KXL. Both KXL and Line 3 are oil-sands pipelines.
“Line 5 in Michigan doesn’t just deliver products from Canada to Canada through Michigan. Also, 65 [percent] of the propane in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan comes from Line 5. Texas is having a cold wave. Imagine what it feels like in Michigan today. So, it’s a very serious issue,” said Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian–American Business Council, at a forum organized by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on Feb. 16.
These are challenging days for Josh Williams, a pipeliner with 20 years in the industry. Union pipeliners have to keep working hours at a certain level to qualify for a benefits package that includes health insurance and 401(k) retirement accounts.
“I lost my insurance six months ago,” he told The Epoch Times.
He said that his local union has a first-in and first-out job coordination system. Williams shared a union document showing that as of Feb. 12, 1,768 welders, 257 journeymen, and 1,990 helpers are “on the wheel,” indicating that many people are currently out of a job and looking for one. If a person is at 1,001 on the list, he will need to wait for the first 1,000 to get jobs before it’s his turn. Therefore, the outlook to clear the bar appears bleak.
Some jobs require pipeliners to cover the cost of travel to the job site before they start earning an income. Williams said that he also knew friends who had to choose between nice Christmas gifts for their kids versus spending the money to travel to a job. Some decided to stay home; others chose to sacrifice Christmas to get to another job.
Disappointment With Union
Williams expressed disappointment with the United Association (UA), the parent labor union of which his local is an affiliate. He said that the UA endorsed candidate Joe Biden during the election and sent members letters urging them to vote for him.
“You can’t vote for somebody that’s going to shut your work down. You just can’t do that. Nobody in their right minds will do that,” he said.
For some, the reality didn’t set in until the first week of the Biden administration, according to Williams. He said that some were confused by mixed messages on the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking during the election and thought Biden would back unions because unions donate a lot of money to his campaign.
On Feb. 16, Gary Doer, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, said at a forum organized by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute that Biden committed to canceling KXL during the primary season, while trying to secure the nomination.
“I do think it’s unfortunate that the building trade delegates in the Democratic Party weren’t able to have as much power at the time in May of last year than the environmental lobbyists, particularly with the threat of [Sen. Bernie] Sanders still staying in the race,” he told The Epoch Times.
He said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should focus on protecting Line 5 and Line 3.
A local political action committee to get signatures to petition governors and organizations worked, but not as well as it should have, Williams said.
On Feb. 8, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order to protect the state’s oil and gas industry against “federal overreach and dismissal of Oklahoma’s constitutional ability to properly determine how to best develop its own natural resources.”
As a resident of Poteau, Oklahoma, Williams welcomed his governor’s action.
“The governor’s executive order pretty much told the administration: Stay out of Oklahoma’s gas and oil industry business. It supports thousands and thousands of families just in Oklahoma,” he said.
Way of Life Under Attack
“He [Biden] was attacking our profession, our industry, our lives, everything,” Williams told The Epoch Times.
“The big thing for me is the camaraderie, the family atmosphere, the brothers. It’s a brotherhood; it’s a sisterhood.
“The big thing on every job is when you’re away from your family, your immediate family, this is our family away from home. You build a lot of relationships; you get to meet new people. When I go to these jobs and projects, I try to find these guys’ names and become friends with them. And we all have the same interests at heart, every one of us.”
Not having this is taking away his way of life, he said.
Palazzo, who’s overseen 3,500 miles of various pipelines over his career, knows that the pipeliners have a demanding job, often working 60 hours a week. Yet, they still find time to help local charities.
“A lot of times, they don’t even ask corporate. They would take care of it themselves,” he said.
He recalled that in Ohio when COVID-19 first hit, pipeliners organized food drives for the elderly, and donated N95 masks to local medical facilities. They also prepared food for local first responders and medical personnel to stop by and pick up, all on the pipeliners’ own initiative.
“The goal is always when you go in and do a project, you want to be a good neighbor, you respect the community and try to make it a better place while you are there,” he said.