Hugh McQuaid Photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy touted the benefits of his natural gas expansion plan Tuesday before a construction workers union whose industry is poised to gain jobs over the next decade under the plan.

Malloy spoke at a training center in Meriden for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 478. The union is working to train its Connecticut members to fill pipeline construction jobs that will be created as the state greatly expands its natural gas infrastructure under a plan proposed by Malloy and recently given preliminary approval by regulators.

Under the plan, Southern Connecticut Gas, Connecticut Natural Gas, and Yankee Gas will expand 900 miles of natural gas lines to 280,000 customers. According to Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, that likely will mean between 3,000 and 4,000 construction jobs over the next 10 years.

The plan also seeks to reduce upfront conversion costs for homeowners and businesses by increasing their rates and spreading that over a 10-year period.

Although the heating oil companies have opposed the plan and claim it will put their small, family-owned businesses out of work, Malloy was welcomed at the construction workers union shop. The construction industry was hit hard by the recession and has been slow to rebound.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gov. Malloy wearing his new jacket (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The event’s organizers had affixed a large blue banner to a pipe in the garage bay. It read, “Governor Malloy Local 478 Dedicated To Connecticut’s Energy Future.” Once Malloy arrived, he was given a black Local 478 jacket with “Gov. Malloy” embroidered on one side.

Craig Metz, the local’s business manager, even offered the governor some chewing tobacco “to be a real pipeliner.” Malloy waved off the chew.

“We’re drawing the line, we’re drawing the line,” he said.

Malloy, who last month told reporters he was not yet a candidate for re-election, said energy costs have dropped and job creation has increased since he has been governor. Some have argued that rates have decreased largely because of a drop in natural gas prices and despite the policies of the Malloy administration.

Regardless, Malloy said the state’s high energy costs have put it at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting jobs and businesses, but his energy plan was helping to address the issue.

“We are winning this war with respect to energy costs, but we’re going to have to stay the course,” he said.

The governor said natural gas is not perfect and has emissions associated with it. However, he said those emissions are less than those that come from burning oil.

“We will have a substantial positive impact on the environment while we lower costs, while we make Connecticut competitive for jobs. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” he said.

Lori Pelletier, head of Connecticut AFL-CIO, praised the natural gas expansion and the construction jobs it would create.

“Often times we hear that government doesn’t create jobs. Well this plan creates jobs and it was a government plan,” she said.

The hope is that those new jobs will go to construction workers from Connecticut. The International Union of Operating Engineers is sending $4 million in equipment and experts to teach pipeline construction classes at the Meriden facility to prep its local members for a new type of project.

James T. Callahan, president of the union’s national organization, spoke about the investment at Tuesday’s event.

“If this work is so plentiful, we’ll make sure that you have well trained, safe people to do this,” Callahan said.

Asked whether enough Connecticut workers will be properly trained to fill all the pipeline construction jobs, Esty said it was a question the administration was asking as well. He credited the union with working to get its members up to speed, but he said there are a whole set of other “training opportunities” that Connecticut workers will need to quickly master for the project.

Esty said he wants to make sure in-state workers are “on the fast-track” through the necessary training. Asked whether a shortage of qualified workers could slow the 10-year project, he said “there’s people out there” to do the work.

“The question is whether they are Connecticut people or whether you end up with out-of-state contractors. I want to make sure that it is in-state residents that are getting the benefit of this infrastructure investment,” he said.

Nate Brown, Local 478’s referral manager and government relations director, said the union was confident its members would be prepared for the expansion projects.

“The majority of the heavy equipment operators we have now are ready to do this kind of work,” he said. “Our focus is going to be making sure Connecticut residents are out here doing this work.”