Environmentalists raised grave concerns Monday over newly reported details of a side deal between the Democratic leadership and Sen. Joe Manchin that would reform the permitting process for energy projects and clear the way for final approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas through West Virginia.
The agreement was reached as part of an effort to secure Manchin's support for the Inflation Reduction Act, a proposed budget reconciliation bill that includes renewable energy investments, drug price reforms, and a number of giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. Because its provisions fall outside the bounds of reconciliation, the side deal must be passed as separate legislation.
According to a one-page summary obtained by the Washington Post, the agreement in its current form "would set new two-year limits, or maximum timelines, for environmental reviews for 'major' projects," a potentially massive victory for the fossil fuel industry that could also entail benefits for renewable energy production.
"It would also aim to streamline the government processes for deciding approvals for energy projects by centralizing decision-making with one lead agency," the Post notes. "The bill would also attempt to clear the way for the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport Appalachian shale gas about 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia. This pipeline is a key priority of Manchin's."
Specifically, the summary states the bill would require "relevant agencies" to "take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the D.C. Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation."
As the New York Times notes, that move would take cases involving the pipeline away "from the Fourth District, where environmentalists had found success."
The emissions impact of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been mired in legal and regulatory issues for years, would be substantial at a time when scientists say failure to swiftly rein in carbon pollution would have devastating consequences for life on Earth. One analysis estimates the completed pipeline would generate 89,526,651 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equal to 26 new coal-fired power plants or 19 million passenger vehicles.
The pipeline has drawn forceful opposition from local and Indigenous communities that fear the project will expose water and land to dangerous leakage and pollution. The pipeline's current route would carry gas across around 1,000 streams and wetlands on its path from West Virginia to Virginia.
"It's not a climate solution. It's a climate bomb," Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, wrote in a Twitter post Monday.
"Fast-tracking fossil fuel projects and industry boondoggles will just throw more fuel on the climate fire," Henn added. "Democrats shouldn't be sacrificing communities in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline just to please a senator in the pocket of Big Oil."
No timeline has been formally established for a vote on the side deal, which would also restrict legal challenges to energy projects. But Manchin, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry and the top recipient of oil and gas donations in Congress, suggested in a statement last week that Democratic leaders committed to advancing legislation containing his priorities by the fall.
According to the Times, which cited unnamed people familiar with the deal, it is likely that Democratic leaders will attempt to "insert the Mountain Valley Pipeline and permitting provisions into a must-pass piece of legislation, such as the bill that funds the federal government, to maximize its chances" of final approval despite anticipated backlash from progressive members.
In a statement late Monday, Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen warned that hacking away at regulatory processes for energy infrastructure "prioritizes polluting industries and fossil fuel interests over people who are dealing with prolonged exposure to toxic pollution."
Since the text of the Inflation Reduction Act emerged last week, climate organizations have been grappling with the trade-offs in the bill and attempting to discern whether the good—historic investments and tax credits for renewable energy production—outweighs the bad, such as requirements for more oil and gas lease sales on public lands and waters.
"The world is on fire and Congress is attacking it with a squirt gun while giving Senator Manchin and fossil fuel executives more matches by fast-tracking oil and gas drilling and hydrogen boondoggles," Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said Monday. "Drilling for oil and gas is no solution to the climate crisis."
Experts have offered varying estimates for how much the Inflation Reduction Act's passage would cut U.S. carbon emissions, with one analyst suggesting CO2 pollution could be reduced by 800 million to 1 billion tons in 2030.
Dillen indicated Monday that Earthjustice supports final approval of the Inflation Reduction Act, which could get a vote in the Senate this week. But she made clear that the climate organization—one of many groups that have sued to block the Biden administration's fossil fuel lease sales—will fight any "attempt to weaken bedrock environmental review laws when the time comes."
"In the meantime," Dillen added, "we must focus on what's in front of us and get the critical climate and environmental justice investments in the Inflation Reduction Act passed. Our planet can't wait."