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The Utter Hollowness of Joe Manchin

The senator from West Virginia used lies or willful ignorance to justify nuking the Build Back Better Act.

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Sen. Joe Manchin walks through a hallway in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Joe Manchin walks through a hallway in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.
Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

After spending months whining about the Build Back Better Act and weakening it, Sen. Joe Manchin went nuclear. Appearing on Fox News on Sunday, the West Virginia Democrat said he was done working with his fellow senators and President Joe Biden.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” he told host Bret Baier.

Manchin then followed that up with a lengthy statement explaining what, exactly, had him so concerned. Political reporters have tried to predict what this all means for the politics of Build Back Better. I’m not a Big Politics Guy, so I don’t purport to know what dimension of chess Manchin and his ilk are playing right now. But I am a guy who knows a thing or two about the climate and energy systems, and I have to say that, based on his statement, Manchin either misunderstands how these things work or is lying.

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“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” Manchin said in his statement.

Now, one could argue if they were the type to read scientific assessments and whatnot that climate change is perhaps the biggest driver of vulnerability in the world right now. A plethora of scientific reports has come out suggesting that failing to implement policies that meaningfully and immediately bend the emissions curve will result in millions of people’s suffering. That doesn’t just pertain to the developing world, though it will certainly be hit hardest. Look at the U.S. this year with little more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of warming: catastrophic wildfires once again burned down a town and incinerated forests, Hurricane Ida devastated the Gulf Coast and the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest saw a mass casualty event from triple-digit heat.

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Manchin claimed the national debt is among the things leaving us vulnerable. Tell that to the people who lost loved ones or their homes this summer and the generations who will have to live with his decision to not support a climate policy that was the barest minimum.

But the beating heart of darkness in Manchin’s statement isn’t his misread of vulnerability. It’s the following statement on the grid (emphasis added):

If enacted, the bill will also risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains. The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America. In the last two years, as Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and with bipartisan support, we have invested billions of dollars into clean energy technologies so we can continue to lead the world in reducing emissions through innovation. But to do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years.

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This last part is the most mendacious part of Manchin’s statement. Arguing inflation makes people vulnerable—which Manchin does in his statement—is fair (putting aside that Manchin’s “no” on Build Back Better just cut off hundreds of dollars in benefits tied to the child tax credit that means people will have less money in their pockets.) But to pretend the blackouts that hit California and Texas are examples of what happens when you go toward renewables too fast is an utter lie.

As Texas’ February blackout was happening, it was clear that deregulation meant natural gas infrastructure wasn’t ready for the cold snap and froze up. A peer-reviewed analysis published months afterward confirmed this.

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“The next crisis may very well be crippling summer heat so preparing to avoid the next freeze won’t deal with the broader problem that our climate is changing and our infrastructure is designed for the 1960s, not the 2060s,” Joshua Busby, a distinguished scholar at the University of Texas’ Strauss Center and lead author of the report, told me at the time the peer-reviewed study came out.

California’s blackouts have also been caused by gas failing to meet demand. And why has demand been so high? Because it’s too fucking hot and people are running air conditioning to [checks notes] not die. Planned blackouts have also hit the state because, again, it’s too fucking hot and the grid is prone to causing explosive wildfires in those conditions.

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You know what would’ve helped deal with these issues? The Build Back Better Act, which included tax credits that would’ve created hundreds of thousands of jobs, connected the grid more cohesively to ensure reliability, and driven down utility bills, according to an analysis by the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Maybe Joe Manchin just couldn’t be bothered to read up on this stuff between his weekly meetings with Exxon or counting the $220,602 from the utility industry and $763,407 from the oil and gas industry he’s received this election cycle, according to federal election data. Which, I mean, fair—that’s a lot of counting. (It took MrBeast 40 hours to get to 100,000 out loud!)

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Manchin’s actions and his mention of wanting to protect the “vulnerable” in his statement are, I think, telling. Folks in West Virginia suffer from the most unreliable grid under normal circumstances (read: no wildfires or other shocks) in the U.S. They, like millions of other Americans, rely on outdated, polluting technology to keep the lights on and would benefit from the fixes in the Build Back Better Act—fixes that would also slow down climate change and provide still more benefits.

The “vulnerable” Manchin mentions, therefore, must be the incumbent polluting industries that have funded his rise to power. Manchin said, “Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia.” Which only makes sense if the only people he’s talking to are his dirty donors.