- WASHINGTON POST
Terrible Public Policy’: Why the Debt Deal Infuriates Climate Activists
11:45 JST, May 30, 2023
A long-disputed Appalachian natural gas pipeline could be on a fast track to completion as part of the new debt ceiling deal.
President Biden and House Republicans have agreed to expedite permitting for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that is key to several members of the West Virginia delegation as the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) seek to woo lawmakers across the capital. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). has previously demanded White House support for the project in exchange for his vote, and other Republicans, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, praised the pipeline provisions included in the legislation.
It is another White House concession to Manchin, who has long championed the 303-mile pipeline, which would carry West Virginia shale gas to the East Coast but has been tripped up by dozens of environmental violations and a slew of court fights. Environmentalists have fought the project since its inception, and the new provisions aims to block them from challenging almost all government approvals for the line to cut across federal forests and dozens of waterways in Appalachia’s hilly, wet terrain.
The pipeline language is just one of a few energy and climate provisions in the deal, drawing ire from pipeline opponents and climate activists. The bill also proposes streamlining the landmark National Environmental Policy Act to limit its requirements on some projects, and studying the capacity of the country’s grid to transfer electricity from region to region.
Republican leaders say they will work with the White House later on how to speed up major electric transmission projects – crucial to Biden’s goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels – but excluded such provisions from this deal. The White House also said it fended off efforts to cut billions in spending from major legislation Biden had championed, including last year’s roughly $370 billion package that funded his climate agenda.
That was not enough to please environmental groups. The Sierra Club on Monday called for Congress to reject it, , as did Sen. Tim Kaine (D) from Virginia, where both U.S. senators have opposed the pipeline project.Kaine said Monday he planned to propose an amendment to strip the pipeline provisions from the bill.
“Any deal that attempts to expedite the fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline, that rolls back bedrock environmental protections, and makes life harder for workers and families already struggling is a bad deal for the country,” Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous said in a statement.
Several climate advocates criticized Biden for supporting the pipeline by noting the administration also approved a giant oil project in Alaska called Willow earlier this year, and has been reluctant to help stop other pipeline projects. Climate activists have tried to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline, also called MVP, as a way of limiting the supply of cheap natural gas, and locals have been frustrated by frequent construction mishaps.
But it has been a top priority for Manchin, who had demanded legislation to help the project as part of his support for the larger climate package last year. Along with Capito, Manchin may be needed again to pass the new deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling, and Democrats have been looking to help his tough reelection trying to defend a Democratic senate seat in his heavily Republican state.
“I am pleased Speaker McCarthy and his leadership team see the tremendous value in completing the MVP to increase domestic energy production and drive down costs across America and especially in West Virginia,” Manchin said late Sunday in a statement that did not mention Biden, the president from his own party. “I am proud to have fought for this critical project.”
MVP is a joint venture between some of the largest gas companies in Appalachia and the nation’s most valuable power company, NextEra Energy. Its largest investor is Equitrans Midstream, a spinoff of the largest U.S. natural gas producer, EQT, and MVP connects Marcellus shale sweet spots for EQT and other drillers in West Virginia to a hub for East Coast supplies in Virginia.
Manchin has called it crucial for the country’s energy security, especially getting gas supply from his home state to major demand centers. He has complained that the administration has been unable to permit the rest of the project with just 20 miles of it left to complete.
But construction for Mountain Valley has relied on eminent domain to seize private property, repeatedly violated clean-water laws and gone billions of dollars over budget. It committed more than 500 violations in the two states, according to a count from the environmental group Appalachian Voices.
Just Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission needed to provided a further environmental review of the project, which could have put its completion off until 2024, according to the independent research firm ClearView Energy Partners.
The new legislation could nullify that decision and other outstanding court orders, experts said. Legislative language prohibits court oversight of decisions on MVP permitting from FERC and other federal agencies. It says Congress ratifies all permits and gives the Army Corps of Engineers 21 days after the bill’s passage to issue those permits. Only that law itself can be challenged in the D.C. Circuit.
“It’s really terrible public policy for Congress to pick winners and losers in the courtroom,” said Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director with Appalachian Voices. “One company is getting a pass while everyone else has to play by the rules.”
What House officials say they prevented Republican attempts to gut last year’s climate spending bill and to include a package, known as H.R. 1, that would have enacted bigger rollbacks of air pollution, clean water, and chemical protection laws.
“President Biden protected his historic climate legislation,” White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said. “We believe this is a bipartisan compromise that congressional Democrats can be proud of and that will accelerate our clean energy goals and climate agenda.”
White House officials also said that MVP was already likely to be completed anyway in due time – with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management issuing key permits earlier this month.
“It’s something that there’s a high degree of interest in, but I think, as a practical matter, this provision doesn’t have much of an effect,” White House climate adviser John Podesta said, according to audio of a call with House Democrats obtained by The Washington Post.
A spokeswoman for Equitrans said the company plans to finish the pipeline by the end of 2023. She said the company is grateful for support from the White House and congressional leaders of both parties.
“MVP is among the most environmentally scrutinized projects to be built in this country, having been subject to an unprecedented level of legal and regulatory review,” spokeswoman Natalie Cox said in an email.
The project’s delays put it in the middle of a discussion, brewing since last year, of how long it takes to permit energy infrastructure. A natural gas pipeline takes around three years to build; electric transmission is often even slower, eight to 15 years to build, a problem that White House officials have warned could block most of the benefits of last year’s climate-spending package if it is not fixed.
Environmentalists said the changes to the National Environmental Policy Act could help other pipeline projects go faster. But there is little in the deal directed at helping renewable energy get from generating plants to customers.
It leaves out measures, in talks as recently as Thursday, to encourage the construction of transmission lines by requiring regions to transfer at least 30 percent of their peak electricity demand between each other. The transmission study included in the deal also could take years to finish, and the legislative language for it “has technical problems” that may prevent it from surviving, said Rob Gramlich, president of the consulting group Grid Strategies.
Jason Grumet, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association, a renewable energy industry group, called the measures just a “down payment.” It will introduce shorter timelines for reviews and empower a single lead agency on decisions among other moves, but that will not be enough, he said.
“It is critical that Congress build upon these initial steps,” Grumet said. “Absent significant improvements in the siting and construction of new clean power transmission capabilities, our nation will fail to achieve critical economic, national security and climate goals.”
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