The bill, titled the “Energy Independence and Security Act,” is the other side of the deal that Manchin struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the lead up to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Schumer promised that, if Manchin voted for the IRA, he in turn would ensure the votes for Manchin’s permitting pet project. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also agreed to the trade-off.
Yet, now that the legislation is finalized, the true repercussions of that last-ditch deal are apparent. Manchin’s bill, which is very similar to a draft summary released earlier this summer, includes some big restrictions on the environmental review process of new fossil fuel and other energy infrastructure, limiting federal oversight of future petroleum plants and pipelines.
It also has provisions that would hamper the ability of climate advocates to fight back against fossil fuel investment. And, the proposed legislation would require the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a more than 300-mile-long natural gas line set to cut through part of North Caroline, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Manchin has long tried to push the idea of “streamlining” the permitting process and making it easier and faster to get fossil fuel infrastructure built. Admittedly, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, but that’s a good thing when it comes to pumping the brakes on environmentally destructive development.
Some of the specific things the bill includes, according to an official summary:
- A two-year time limit for federal environmental reviews of “major” proposed energy projects and a one-year target for lesser projects
- A 180-day time limit on the issuance of permits following National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) approval
- A 150-day statute of limitations for legal challenges to permits
- A slightly narrowed Clean Water Act, through a series of amendments to section 401
- Mandated completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, despite the numerous environmental violations that have occurred during the pipeline’s construction
- The Presidential prioritization of 25 energy project reviews within 90 days, some of which are required to be fossil fuel-related (Bonus: Every six months, for the next decade, the President will be required to release an updated version of this priority list, that continues to include fossil fuel development)
These time limits and changes could make it more likely that oil and gas projects are pushed through without thorough environmental assessment. And they would certainly make it harder for frontline communities to challenge new fossil fuel development in court.
Manchin fought to include his permitting measure in spending legislation that’s necessary to pass to avoid a government shut-down. And Schumer has agreed. So, the message to Congressional Democrats is essentially: Vote in favor of the permitting bill or arbitrarily punish federal workers.
In response, many progressive Democrats are furious about the deal. 75 House lawmakers co-signed an open letter to Pelosi earlier this month expressing “deep concerns” surrounding the looming permitting legislation. Particularly that “these serious and detrimental permitting provisions will significantly and disproportionately impact low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color.” The reps have called for Manchin’s bill to be voted on separately from the spending legislation, and it’s unclear what will happen if it reaches the House.
Some lawmakers and groups on the side of renewable energy are in favor of Manchin’s bill, as they see it as a way to fast-track the necessary transition to wind and solar, according to a report from the New York Times.
However, many environmental groups oppose the permitting measure. “The text of this legislative side deal overwhelmingly benefits the fossil fuel industry,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy non-profit, in a statement. “We don’t need to gut the Clean Water Act and other bedrock environmental laws to build out wind and solar energy,” added Brett Hartl, the Center’s government affairs director.
In an email to Gizmodo, James Van Nostrand, an environmental law professor at West Virginia University, said there’s a worrying precedent created by forcing through the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The company behind MVP has racked up more than 350 environmental violations during the pipeline’s construction so far, mostly related to water pollution and sediment management. “The ‘finish MVP at all costs’ approach of Manchin would reward bad behavior: don’t comply with your permits, and Congress will bail you out,” Nostrand said.
The finished pipeline would result in estimated annual greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 24 coal-fired power plants. It was originally planned to be completed in 2018 but has been halted and delayed multiple times. And its total cost has skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion.
Unfortunately, the bad news of Manchin’s continued demands for more climate change concessions comes with... additional bad news. Senate Republicans have their own permitting plan on the table, and it’s even more extreme than Manchin’s version of a compromise. That bill would codify Trump-era executive actions that expedited project approval, limit the Endangered Species Act, and codify a long-contested Clean Water Act restriction that would limit protections only to “navigable waters.”