Jobs Outlook Mixed For Keystone XL South

Four thousand construction workers will soon take their places along a 500-mile line from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur. They’ll then set to work building what architect TransCanada calls the Gulf Coast Project.

Michael Barnes is spokesman for the U.S. operations of TransCanada, based in downtown Houston.  He says several hundred of those construction jobs will fall in Greater Houston — most in Liberty County or on a spur connecting the main pipeline to eastern Harris County.

“Those folks will be spending money in the communities, whether it’s at hotels or restaurants. They will be buying products to help with the construction of the project. And then you look at the long-term impact that we will have. We’re going to be contributing tax dollars up and down the pipeline, and that’s going to be up into the millions.”

Just how much of that money will flow to Houston area residents is in dispute.

Matthew Tejada is executive director of Air Alliance Houston. Tejada opposed Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Project, saying both would lead to an increase of extremely heavy crude oil flowing to local refineries. That, he says, would worsen the public health threat to Houstonians living in what he calls “fence line communities,” poor neighborhoods mostly along the Houston Ship Channel that already suffer from some of the city’s worst air quality.

I asked Tejada whether the prospect of high-paying jobs might not improve the lives of those in fence line communities.

“These are temporary jobs, with a very specialized workforce, the welders and the pipefitters, who will move to the site, work the job, and then they will go back to wherever they came from. It’s just a false argument to me that the jobs created here are that valuable.”

False, he says, because the residents of these neighborhoods generally don’t have the skills for such jobs.

In fact, skilled tradesmen are in short supply all over Houston. Jesse Thompson is an economist with the Houston branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He says claims that the pipeline project will create hundreds of new local jobs could be extremely difficult to prove.

“The timing of this is coincident with a wave of heavy construction jobs in related industries that is supposed to sweep the Gulf Coast. It’s going to be in refining. It’s going to be in petrochemicals in particular. And so that’s going to be competing for a lot of the same skilled labor.”

Wherever the workers hail from, the project should keep them busy through at least the end of 2013. Thompson hopes that will be long enough to convince many of them to make Houston their permanent home.

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