WASHINGTON – A push by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to speed permits for natural gas pipelines and other energy projects has failed in the current Congress, but could come back as soon as next month.
The Senate rejected the permitting proposal Thursday night, ending a months-long effort by Manchin to speed approval of a range of energy projects — including a planned pipeline in his home state and Virginia.
The 47-47 vote was far short of the 60 votes Manchin needed to attach it to a defense policy bill Congress approved and sent to President Joe Biden. Ten Democrats voted against the plan by Manchin, a conservative Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has frequently clashed with his own party over his strong support for coal and other fossil fuels.
In a statement after the vote, Manchin blasted Senate Republicans for lining up against the plan despite previous pledges to support efforts to streamline energy permitting. Just seven Republicans voted in favor of Manchin's amendment.
"Once again, Mitch McConnell and Republican leadership have put their own political agenda above the needs of the American people,'' Manchin said, singling out the GOP leader from Kentucky.
While energy costs continue to rise and Russian President Vladimir Putin “weaponizes energy” through his war in Ukraine, McConnell and other Republicans " voted down a bill that would have completed the Mountain Valley Pipeline and quickly delivered natural gas to the market, lowering home heating costs for families and making America more energy secure and independent,'' Manchin said.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a nearly complete natural gas pipeline from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The 300-mile project is fiercely opposed by environmental groups who say it would pollute land and water and continue a legacy of energy projects that treat Appalachia as “a sacrifice zone.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was one of the 10 Democrats who opposed Manchin's plan, said “green-lighting the MVP is contrary to the spirit of permitting reform. Such a deliberate action by Congress to put its thumb on the scale and simply approve this project while shutting down opportunities for full administrative or judicial review is at odds with the bipartisan desire to have a more transparent and workable permitting process.''
Limiting judicial review in particular “would set a dangerous precedent that could easily lead to abuse and even corruption in the future," Kaine said.
Manchin called the pipeline — and the larger issue of speeding federal permits for energy projects — “essential to ensuring lasting American (energy) security and independence.”
While decrying "the political games of Washington,'' he vowed to continue his efforts to boost the pipeline and push for faster permits for energy projects, which now can take up to 10 years.
Some Democrats supported Manchin's efforts, noting that the plan would also speed renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms.
“There is bipartisan interest in common-sense permitting reform, to safely and quickly build out the clean energy infrastructure of the future,'' said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a climate hawk.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, another Democratic climate hawk, said "permitting reform is essential for our climate goals.”
Manchin secured a commitment from Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress last summer to back the permitting package in return for his support of a landmark law to curb climate change.
Biden renewed his support Thursday, saying in a statement that Manchin’s proposal would “cut Americans’ energy bills, promote U.S. energy security and boost our ability to get energy projects built and connected to the grid.''
Under current law, “far too many projects face delays — keeping us from generating critical, cost-saving energy needed by families and businesses across America,'' Biden said. “That’s an impediment to our economic growth, for creating new jobs, and lessening our reliance on foreign imports.''
But in the months since Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act in August, many Democrats and environmental groups have stepped up their opposition to the permitting plan, calling it bad for the country and the climate. Manchin agreed to remove the bill from a stopgap spending bill approved in September in the face of fierce opposition but tried to revive it in the defense measure, only to run into resistance from the same groups.
“Manchin’s efforts to tie his dirty deal to any must-pass legislation he can get his hands on are undemocratic and potentially devastating for the planet,'' said Ariel Moger of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
Ann Clancy, associate director of climate policy for the Indivisible Project, a nonprofit progressive group, said Democrats in the House and Senate understood that Manchin's plan “bet against our future and threatened the historic progress Democrats have made in addressing the climate crisis.''
While defeated in the current legislative session, the permitting plan is likely to reemerge in January as Republicans take control of the House.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has vowed to “maximize American-made energy, reduce reliance on foreign countries and lower energy costs across the country.” Under GOP leadership, the House will move quickly to "open up access to our rich natural resources, reform and streamline permitting processes and incentivize innovation,'' he said.