Democrats desperately needed the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to get their signature legislative priority across the finish. So they did what Washington does best: They cut a deal.
To help land his support for a bill hailed by advocacy groups as the biggest investment ever in curbing climate change, Manchin said he secured a commitment from President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders to move a permitting-streamlining package for energy projects through Congress before Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Now the climate bill is law, and Manchin is ready to collect. But key Democratic constituency groups are lining up against the proposal, calling it bad for the country and the climate. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and dozens of House members agree.
The fissure could complicate the party’s efforts to keep the focus on this summer’s major legislative victories going into the November midterm elections, which will determine which party controls the House and the Senate. More immediately, the divide is testing the ability of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to keep enough Democrats in line to avoid a partial government shutdown at the end of the month.
Get New England news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NECN newsletters.
Schumer is pushing ahead. He said this week that he would attach Manchin’s preferred measure to must-pass legislation that would keep the federal government running into mid-December.
To win over skeptics, some Democrats are stressing that Manchin’s proposal to streamline environmental reviews for energy infrastructure projects would be good for renewable energy, too.
A summary of the proposed legislation has been circulating among Senate Democrats in recent days and was obtained by The Associated Press. It states that the package being developed is key to meeting climate goals by developing interstate transmission lines that will transport electricity from Midwestern wind farms, for example, to major East Coast cities.
“Unfortunately, today these higher voltage, longer lines across multiple jurisdictions are not getting built," the summary said.
The summary states that about 20 large transmission projects are ready to move forward with some federal support.
“Reforms to address permitting, siting and cost allocation concerns are key to building these projects," the document says.
In interviews, key Democratic senators stressed a similar message, calling the energy proposal complementary to the massive climate package that passed last month.
"Right now, there's just too much delay in solar and wind and geothermal, so I want at every possible opportunity to speed up permitting for renewables," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the permitting effort is about making sure bedrock environmental laws are followed in a more timely manner, such as concurrent reviews by government agencies rather than one agency beginning its work after another has finished.
Schatz said the “old environmental movement" was built around stopping inappropriate projects. But the “new environmental movement" is built around building an unprecedented amount of clean energy.
“In order to do that, we're going to run into the same regulations that have stopped bad projects for a number of years," Schatz said. “If we're going to actually meet our clean energy goals, we're going to need to build big planet-saving projects, and that means the federal regulations that slow them down have to be looked at very carefully."
Legislative text incorporating Manchin's priorities has not yet been released, but among the goals he has set out is establishing a maximum timeline for permitting reviews, including two years for major projects and one year for lower-impact projects. Manchin also wants a statute of limitations for filing court challenges and language that would enhance the federal government's authority over interstate electric transmission projects determined by the Secretary of Energy to be in the national interest.
Finally, he wants to require all relevant agencies to take the steps necessary to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile (487-kilometer) pipeline, which is mostly finished and would transport natural gas across West Virginia and Virginia.
The proposed route crosses more than 1,100 streams and will disturb 6,951 acres (2,813 hectares) of land, including 4,168 acres (1,687 hectares) that have the potential for severe water erosion. When fully complete, the pipeline will deliver up to 2 billion cubic feet (56 million cubic meters) of natural gas per day to markets in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
Legal battles have delayed completion by nearly four years and doubled the pipeline’s cost, now estimated at $6.6 billion. Manchin also wants to give the federal appeals court in Washington jurisdiction over any further litigation regarding the project.
More than 70 House Democrats signed onto a letter Friday calling on Pelosi to keep the permitting provisions out of the spending bill, or any other must-pass legislation this year.
“We remain deeply concerned that these serious and detrimental permitting provisions will significantly and disproportionately impact low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color," the lawmakers wrote.
Sanders directed his ire mostly at efforts to open the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Speaking on the Senate floor, he cited the litany of climate disasters taking place around the globe — from record-breaking droughts in the West and in China, to massive flooding in Pakistan, to the melting of glaciers that he said could place major U.S. cites underwater in coming decades.
“At a time when climate change is threatening the very existence of the planet, why would anybody be talking about substantially increasing carbon emissions and expanding fossil fuel production in the United Sates?" Sanders said. “What kind of message does this send to the people of our own country and to suffering people all over the world?"
Schatz called the Mountain Valley Pipeline a “different animal" that he normally would not accept, but “we've made a deal with Joe Manchin." He said that deal, which led to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last month, has put the U.S. on a path to achieving the most emission reductions in the nation's history.
That bill uses changes in the tax code to move the U.S. to cleaner sources of energy. It gives tax breaks to consumers who buy electric vehicles, solar panels and more energy-efficient appliances, and it also provides financial incentives for the manufacturers of such products. Plus the bill spends billions of dollars on such things as transitioning the fleet of the U.S. Postal Service to electric vehicles.
Advocates project the bill puts the U.S. on track to cut emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.
“In the net, this is not a close call," Schatz said. “... I don't like this pipeline, but it's not the main environmental problem on the planet. The main environmental problem is that we're not doing enough wind and solar. And now we're about to see wind and solar energy take off like a rocket ship."
This story has been corrected to show the pipeline will deliver 2 billion cubic feet, not 2 cubic feet, of natural gas per day.