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Construction workers and their families left in limbo by Biden’s Keystone decision: ‘It’s devastating’

by Barnini Chakraborty

On one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Biden stopped construction of the $8 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline. In the second part of this series, “Pipe Dreams Lost,” the Washington Examiner investigates the monumental decision’s effect on the construction workers who have been left in limbo.

SIOUX CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — The Zwall family goes where the job takes them.

Richard, his wife Paige, and their two sons Ethan and Gabriel, have spent the better part of a decade crisscrossing the country in their camper to work on America’s pipelines. It’s an unconventional lifestyle but one that works for them.

They get to give their children a “hands-on history lesson” of the United States and show them that grit and hard work pays off. The 37-year-old patriarch got started in the pipeline business after Paige’s grandfather helped him land his first job. He’s been hooked ever since.

In 2009, Richard Zwall worked on the first Keystone Pipeline project. He started off in South Dakota, made his way to Oklahoma, and finished the gig in Texas.

Eleven years later, he was back and among thousands of skilled workers ready to help build the Keystone XL pipeline. Like so many others, he was drawn in by a steady paycheck, good benefits, and a pension. But all of that came crashing down on Jan. 20 when President Biden signed an executive order that revoked federal permits for the $8 billion cross-border venture.

Richard Zwall told the Washington Examiner there had been rumors the new president would shut down the project but that some had held out hope because Biden campaigned on creating jobs.

“Democrats are supposed to support the union,” he said. “One minute he would tell us, ‘I’m not going to [cancel the pipeline], and then he did.”

The Zwall family: Richard, Paige, sons Ethan and Gabriel.
The Zwall family: Richard, Paige, sons Ethan and Gabriel. The Zwalls travel across the country together from one pipeline job to the next.
(Courtesy of Richard Zwall)

If plans had stayed in place, the Keystone XL pipeline would have carried Canadian crude oil from Alberta and Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline would connect two points of an existing pipeline, also called Keystone, which carries oil from Canada to Gulf Coast oil refineries. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline began in 2020 after a decade of protests from environmental activists, Native Americans, and ranchers along its proposed route. They’ve raised concerns about climate change and said oil spills could contaminate the land and pollute drinking water. Most recently, opponents said that pipeline workers living in close quarters could contract COVID-19 and spread it to nearby communities and reservations.

Proponents of the pipeline have touted the number of jobs it would create and claim the pipeline would help the U.S. become less dependent on overseas oil. In 2015, President Barack Obama rejected the project on environmental grounds. President Donald Trump revived it as one of his first actions in office, only to have Biden reverse it on his first day in the White House.

“Once Joe sat down with his stack of executive orders, and he got to the KXL pipeline, that was it,” Peter Bardeson, business manager for the Laborers, Local 620 union in Sioux Falls, told the Washington Examiner. “Our guys were told by the contractors on site that Joe killed the job.”

Bardeson, who has been involved with three cross-country pipelines, had about 60 laborers working at three of the six pump sites in South Dakota when the news of the cancellation hit. Local 620 members began working on location in June and were expected to stay on the job until March. Bardeson estimates that the cancellation of the pipeline cost the union 60,000 hours and $1.6 million in lost wages.

Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
(Courtesy of Tyler Noel, Tyler Kunkel, and Melvin Smith, Laborers Local 620)

“We fought tooth and nail with Barack Obama to build this pipeline,” Bardeson said. “We went to all kinds of town meetings, hearings, and spoke on behalf of the pipeline, what was at stake, which means getting off foreign oil from countries that are anti-American, countries we have been fighting with for years. We were working toward being more self-sufficient.”

He said things looked up with Trump in office but acknowledged that the former president was a lightning rod for controversy and feared that opposition to Trump would translate to disaster for the pipeline.

“They hate Donald Trump. People hate Donald Trump. Democrats hate Donald Trump. But Donald Trump did a lot for America and for us,” Bardeson said. “He’s a guy who wasn’t a politician, and they hated him for it.”

Bardeson believes scrapping the pipeline might have been part of a political vendetta but says Washington needs to wake up and take a hard look at the real-life consequences of the decision. He’s also tired of the condescending talk coming out of Washington about laid-off pipeline workers switching to solar jobs.

Not only is it a different skill set, but carpenters, for example, spend a lot of their own money purchasing specialized hand tools and other items they need for the job.

Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
(Courtesy of Tyler Noel, Tyler Kunkel, and Melvin Smith, Laborers Local 620)

“A good pair of boots will set you back $200,” Bardeson said. “You can’t spend $50 for a pair of boots to stand in all day, 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, and be comfortable. Those are the tools of our trade, so we have to buy quality, and that costs money.”

And money, for a lot of ex-pipeline folks, is much tighter these days.

Bardeson recalled one union member recently purchasing his first home, only to find out a few days later that he was out of a job. Another worker put down a chunk of change on a new car, thinking he would be financially solvent.

“It was the greatest thing watching people get the American dream, but now, it’s devastating,” he said.

The pain isn’t limited to the men and women working on the pipeline. It is spread out to the communities and small business owners who took out loans and invested based on the promise that the pipeline would bring in revenue.

“My husband and I are in debt more than I’d like,” Laurie Cox told the Washington Examiner. Cox purchased a two-story hotel in Midland, South Dakota, six months ago that, up until recently, housed welders, carpenters, and union laborers. The majority have cleared out, and Cox admits that if she didn’t have a two-income household, things would be pretty dire.

Richard Zwall said his decade on the road has taught him how to budget for the lean times but also said he still has payments to make on his truck.

Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
Labor stewards on pump stations 18, 19, and 20 in South Dakota.
(Courtesy of Tyler Noel, Tyler Kunkel, and Melvin Smith, Laborers Local 620)

When the Washington Examiner asked people who worked on the pipeline, or in a job that supported pipeline workers, if they thought the Keystone XL was done for good, the majority said no.

“I’m quite certain this project is on pause, not stop,” Philip Mayor Michael Vetter told the Washington Examiner. “It has dragged out for several years, each time, beginning and stopping on the whims of individual presidents or judges. And each time, thousands of American jobs hanging in the balance. A decision of finality is needed, one way or the other.”

Bardeson said the president of his union would be meeting with members of the Biden administration soon.

“We can’t just let the president sign something and kill it,” he said. “We can’t roll over and play dead. We need to at least let him see that he’s killing.”