On Friday, an energetic Joe Manchin spoke to a room full of oil and gas executives in Houston. The following Monday, after long declining to state his position publicly, he came out against Biden’s nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin to become the top banking cop at the Federal Reserve, as vice chair of supervision. Like his Republican colleagues on the Senate Banking Committee—who boycotted a vote on all pending Fed nominations over Raskin’s professed willingness to incorporate the reality of the climate crisis into banking rules—Manchin cited “the critical importance of financing an all-of-the-above energy policy to meet our nation’s critical energy needs.” By Tuesday afternoon, Raskin had withdrawn her nomination.
Manchin, the Senate’s top recipient of coal, oil, and gas donations, didn’t mention climate-related financial regulations during his remarks on Friday. His industry donors have been plenty outspoken about it, though. And his address to them indicated a willingness to do what they want. At S&P Global’s CERAWeek—one of the continent’s largest energy conferences—Manchin seemed to present himself as a representative for the industry in Washington, offering the room pointers on how to deal with politicians.
“We haven’t been good at … you know, I say, ‘we,’” Manchin said, stumbling a bit, seeming to count himself among the assembled fossil fuel executives. “The energy—the leadership of energy in our country. We haven’t told our story. There’s an old story in politics: Tell your story before someone tells one on you. It’s hard to play defense. It’s much easier to run an offensive play, then make your adjustments.”
It makes sense that Manchin would refer to himself as a member of the energy industry, having founded a number of coal companies in the 1980s. Last year Manchin made roughly three times his salary as a senator in dividends from those businesses, now controlled by his son. (His own ownership stake is reportedly being held in a blind trust.) Since coming to the Senate in 2010, Manchin has collected more than $4.5 million off two companies he founded. As The Intercept reported from Manchin’s financial disclosures, he has stock options valued between $1 million and $5 million in one of those firms, Enersystems Inc.
He exhorted CERAWeek attendees to provide leadership in Washington and look for a “return on investment” from politicians who solicit campaign donations from them, or “mother’s milk,” as he called it. “There’s not one of us,” he said, now apparently referring to his fellow politicians, “that doesn’t come to you, ‘Will you help me, can you help me get the finances I need right now?’ … You all have been very successful. You make great decisions, and you’ve done very well in life for yourself and your family and those around you. Use the same type of approach, when you have politicians that come and ask for support, that you do when you make a financial decision for yourself and your family: You want a return on investment.”
Manchin added that fossil fuel executives should “demand more. If you do that, you all can turn this around. You’ll get some people in Congress that basically are there for the right reasons. There’s a difference between public service and self-service, and there’s not one of you that don’t have the instincts to pick that up immediately. Just use it when you pick it up, and throw ’em the hell out of the room.” A spokesperson for Manchin’s office did not respond to a request to clarify what he meant when he suggested fossil fuel executives throw members of Congress out of the room. His office declined to comment on whether he had met with industry representatives in Houston about Raskin’s nomination.
Later on in his remarks, Manchin seemed to offer proof that he, for one, has provided his own donors with the aforementioned return on investment. He listed off his efforts to champion the Keystone XL pipeline, rebrand the White House’s moratorium on drilling on public lands as a “pause,” and battle methane rules. Specifically, he recalled a conversation with 45-year-old Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (“just a great young man,” Manchin added) about the agency’s proposed methane rules, which Manchin thought should be scrapped if a methane fee in the Build Back Better Act was moving ahead, too. “I said, ‘Michael, don’t you think you oughta work with us a little bit and find out what might be needed in the market before you just decide in Washington?’ I said, ‘I think they’d be more than happy to tell you where’s some things that could be changed,’” Manchin recalled. “So I called the White House. I says, ‘Now tell me what you want to do. Do you just want the money, or do you want to fix the problem? Tell me what you want.’ Now to do both of them is absolutely asinine.”
During his plenary and at a press conference afterward, Manchin outlined a wish list of things he might want from this administration in return for his vote on any remaining climate provisions that could be salvaged from Build Back Better: the use of the Defense Production Act to complete the stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline; continued leasing of public lands for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (recent sales were struck down by a federal judge in January); federal support for Maryland’s Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal; and “fast-track” permitting for four other LNG facilities that he did not name. “Bottom line, we need production,” Manchin said.
Manchin reiterated industry talking points, claiming that the reason drillers aren’t producing more oil and gas has to do with regulatory hurdles. He didn’t mention the fact that Wall Street investors have been the ones pressuring oil and gas drillers to keep growth relatively low. Wall Street would rather drillers increase returns and stop burning through cash the way they have for the last decade.
Fossil fuel executives’ worry about investors losing interest is one of the reasons they opposed the Sarah Bloom Raskin nomination. Climate-related financial regulations of the sort Raskin and a growing number of central bankers around the world have endorsed—including climate stress tests and disclosures on greenhouse gas emissions and transition risk—could add a layer of scrutiny for financial institutions looking to continue investing in coal, oil, and gas projects. “Our industries have already felt the impacts of such activism, as the decapitalization of oil and natural gas has meant that companies cannot adequately invest in new production to respond to the high price signals the market is sending,” 41 oil and gas trade associations wrote in an open letter opposing her nomination.
Asked about investors’ demands of fossil fuel firms, Manchin said to me that he’s told investors they “better explain how your process works and how, basically, investors get in and when they get out and when they will or will not invest. They better explain it because I think the people need to know.” He didn’t clarify who “the people” were but appeared to be referring to the general public.
Asked to clarify what he saw as the balance between federal policy and pressure from Wall Street in preventing production, he added, “We live in a capitalist society. You can’t force them to invest. They get signals. You get a signal that you have support for this, you’re going to do more of it. If you don’t, they won’t,” he continued. “That’s the hard thing we have right now. We have to be really patriotism, at a higher level.”
Tempting as it is to understand fossil fuel interests as a small band of evil executives who wake up every day aspiring to destroy the planet, they control the lifeblood of the global economy—substances that supply 80 percent of the world’s energy. Their power stems from that, and it’s perfectly rational for them to spend generous amounts of money ensuring that nothing comes along to threaten it. As Jane Mayer reported recently in The New Yorker, that spending is what laid the groundwork for them to block Sarah Bloom Raskin’s Fed nomination. Ranking Senate Banking Committee Republican Pat Toomey, who led the charge against Raskin there, has taken over $1 million in contributions from the fossil fuel industry since coming to Washington. In his far shorter tenure on the Hill, Manchin has taken $1.2 million in campaign contributions from energy and natural resource PACs. A conservative dark-money group called the American Accountability Foundation, Mayer reports, took credit for the opposition campaign.
The through line among coal, oil, and gas titans—not just Russia’s oligarchs or Saudi Arabia’s monarchs—is a deep ambivalence about democracy. Our own petrostate politics just look a bit different, with oligarchs acting through their proxies in Congress and statehouses via lobbying and virtually unlimited campaign donations. Manchin, of course, is a bit of a special case. As he seemed to suggest himself in Houston last week, he’s one of their own.