The federal government last month passed landmark climate legislation, making the biggest downpayment on renewable energy in U.S. history. In exchange for his crucial vote in favor of the legislation, Senator Joe Manchin — a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee and has made millions from the coal industry — secured a commitment from Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to pass a separate bill that would streamline the construction of new energy infrastructure, including a gas pipeline in his state.
The long-awaited bill text, released on Wednesday, has environmental activists and many Democratic representatives heated.
“This bill is a thinly veiled attempt to shut out community input and roll back bedrock environmental protections like the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — effectively green-lighting scores of bad fossil fuel projects and stymying the just and clean energy transition President Biden says he supports,” Bradley Campbell, president of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, wrote in an email.
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The bill would codify changes in the environmental review process for which Manchin has vied for years.
It would require Biden to designate 25 energy projects of “strategic national importance” for fast-tracked review by the federal government. Some of those would boost renewable power production and storage, as well as energy transmission — crucial aspects of climate plans — so some Democrats say it would have climate benefits.
But five of those projects would have to “produce, process, transport, or store fossil fuel products.” Top climate scientists say that even current plans to expand fossil fuel usage would usher in catastrophic levels of warming.
The bill would also restrict the length of time for federal permitting reviews, and give opponents just 150 days to file challenges to new projects in court. Lawsuits, including from environmental advocates, have delayed many energy projects.
“‘Permitting reform’ that drastically reduces public input and regulation is an attack on bedrock environmental laws and critical protections,” said Collin Rees, a program manager at climate research and advocacy group Oil Change International.
West Virginia pipeline
The bill would also require the federal government to greenlight the hotly contested Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is set to transport gas between Manchin’s home state of West Virginia and Virginia.
The pipeline is already under construction, but its rollout has been long delayed by environmental violations and judicial rulings.
In an effort to avoid further delays, the bill would require the feds to issue key permits to the pipeline within 30 days of the legislation’s passage. Those permits would be exempt from judicial review.
That would be a major blow to the climate and to communities near the pipeline. The project has already received hundreds of environmental citations, and a 2017 Oil Change International analysis found it would create as much greenhouse gas pollution as two dozen coal plants.
Though New England isn’t a fossil fuel hub, the bill could have local implications, said Campbell.
By placing emphasis on big fossil fuel projects, the bill could slow the energy transition by deprioritizing local renewable energy projects, like offshore wind projects, that need federal approval, he said. And he said it would threaten communities that are already hit hard by pollution and climate disasters.
“We have worked hard in this region to enact environmental justice laws and policies that consider and avoid impacts of development on communities already overburdened by energy and other infrastructure,” said Campbell. “This bill presents a threat to those protections and the people they are designed to protect.”
New England opposition
Leading the Congressional opposition to the bill is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who on Wednesday slammed it as a “Big Oil side deal.” He’s says he’ll vote ‘no’ on a government funding bill if Manchin’s deal is attached to it.
Last week, Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, joined Sanders in saying the bill shouldn’t be tied to the funding legislation. And on Wednesday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren told a Washington Post reporter that the legislation should not be tied to a spending bill.
They’re not alone. Last week 77 other representatives, led by Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva, called to excise Manchin’s permitting reform legislation from the funding bill. And on Wednesday, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine announced that he will vote against the policy on the basis of its Mountain Valley Pipeline provisions. The pipeline would run through his state, but he said he wasn’t included in discussions about those provisions.
Republicans oppose it, too
Across the aisle, some Republicans have railed against Manchin’s proposal. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, called the permitting deal a “political payoff” to Manchin.
Before Manchin’s bill was released, 47 of 50 Senate Republicans backed an alternative permitting proposal, which would fast-track fossil fuel projects, weaken federal environmental review requirements, and limit which U.S. bodies of water are covered by the Clean Water Act.
Whether those Republicans — or others — will now back Manchin’s bill remains to be seen. Manchin says he may need as many as 20 Republican Senate votes to secure the legislation’s success.
Potential government shutdown
Manchin insists the legislation be tied to the short-term spending bill that’s expected to keep the government funded through mid-December. Congress must pass the spending measure by the end of September to avoid a government shutdown.
Schumer told Manchin his wish would be granted. On Tuesday, he told reporters he intends to keep that pledge.
But President Biden, whose administration has voiced support for the bill, has also promised to prioritize climate action and protect frontline communities from fossil fuel infrastructure.
“At a time when frontline communities and the entire planet are crying out for climate action and clean energy, this dirty backroom deal would drive us deeper into fossil fuel dependence for decades to come,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of environmental nonprofit Food and Water Watch, said.
Dharna Noor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.