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Pipeline Talk

Progressives Didn’t Kill Manchin’s Permitting Reform Deal—but It Did Deserve to Die

Now that Manchin’s bill has failed to win enough support, there’s space for a better debate about how to streamline the approval process for new energy projects.

Joe Manchin buttons his jacket while walking.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin arrives at the U.S. Capitol on September 27.

On Tuesday afternoon, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin threw in the towel: Facing opposition left, right and center, the Energy Independence and Security Act he wrote will not be included in the continuing resolution that needs to pass this week in order to keep the government funded. The Energy Independence and Security Act was a vehicle for what is known as permitting reform, which speeds the federal approval of new energy projects. Manchin’s proposals had been criticized by climate progressives for being possibly too favorable to fossil fuel companies and insufficiently sensitive to environmental justice concerns, and criticized by the right for not going far enough in reducing barriers to new projects.

Announcing that he had asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to remove the permitting language, Manchin lashed out at the bill’s critics. “The last several months,” he wrote in a statement, “we have seen firsthand the destruction that is possible as Vladimir Putin continues to weaponize energy. A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only emboldens leaders like Putin who wish to see America fail.” The people who blocked his version of permitting reform from being included in this particular package, apparently, are letting America’s enemies win. It’s hard not to read his statement as a swipe at progressives, particularly as he closed it with “inaction is not a strategy for energy independence and security.” 

But Manchin isn’t the only person who’s gotten his feelings hurt in this process. As acrimonious as the fights were on the progressive side—some felt this version of permitting reform was critical for bringing renewables online quickly—it’s strange for anyone to focus their ire on people trying to stop their water and air from getting more polluted, like the grassroots organizations opposing Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Behind closed doors, Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer brokered a deal designed to piss off just about everyone. That included the likes of Bernie Sanders, who threatened to vote against the continuing resolution, but also centrist New Democrats riled up about their votes being taken for granted. Former Hillary Clinton running-mate Tim Kaine—hardly a left-wing firebrand—didn’t love the idea of two people from outside his state speeding along infrastructure that would traverse it. And it would have been damn near impossible to find 10 Republicans willing to vote for something that didn’t pledge to light the planet on fire. Progressive forces do not control the U.S. Congress. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen observed, progressives were chided for not supporting a deal that never existed in the first place. 

While many climate advocates would agree that some reform is necessary if we’re to transition quickly to renewable energy, there’s a big difference between permitting reform as a broad conceptual category and the permitting reform legislation that was actually under consideration. Manchin’s bill was a fossil fuel industry giveaway with some decent goodies for energy transmission grafted onto it. Significant parts of it had been previously floated by the Trump administration and were then presented in Manchin’s proposal as the cost of doing business in a divided Senate; one such provision altering the Clean Water Act was stripped out at the last minute. For the most part, the climate and environmental justice groups who rallied against Manchin’s language spent their time pointing out the obvious: that ceding so much ground so quickly to the fossil fuel industry probably wasn’t worth the cost of what good might have been done for interstate transmission lines. 

The costs of new fossil fuel installations are not hypothetical. New oil pipelines, a recent study from Global Energy Monitor found, are “dramatically at odds with plans to limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C.” The United States is the world leader in building those, with 1,758 miles under development. More than twice the amount of pipelines are under construction as compared to the last time GEM did the same analysis in 2019, now totaling 15,016 miles. Data is limited on how many barrels per day each of those would produce. Those that GEM did compile numbers on, about two-thirds of the total, would add another 21.8 million barrels per day to the global supply and 4.61 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of 1,000 coal plants—per year. Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley pipeline alone would add the equivalent of 26 coal plants. And all of those emissions calculations are in addition to the direct effects on neighboring communities’ health: from poisoned water to spiked rates of rare cancers near easier-to-build gas petrochemical plants and export terminals. 

The boost provided by Manchin’s bill would be more dramatic for gas than for oil, though both would see upsides from bypassing the kinds of legal challenges that have helped stop projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline in their tracks. GEM found that in the U.S. just a small portion of planned pipelines are currently under construction; permitting reform could offer a leg up to firms to get financing and approval. “The U.S. has its best shot in years at securing durable reforms to oil and gas pipelines permitting potentially unlocking additional U.S. gas production,”  the consultancy Energy Intelligence wrote in August. “If permitting reform squeaks by in the U.S. Senate this fall it could help to clear natural gas bottlenecks in the Northeast and the Permian. The reforms also could help insulate pipeline developers to some extent against costly green litigation.” 

This isn’t the time to be taking such projections lightly. Right now, there is a massive hurricane barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida and a pipeline leak belching an estimated two million cars’ worth of emissions into the atmosphere. 

If there’s a silver lining in the last few weeks, though, it may be the rough consensus that has formed among climate advocates of various stripes that the way the U.S. builds things could use some work. With the immediate pressure off, there might be room for a more constructive debate about what good permitting reform might look like and how to build democratic buy-in for the enormous amount of energy infrastructure that needs to be build in the coming years. Ideally, those changes won’t be written behind closed doors by a few guys getting an inordinate amount of money from the fossil fuel industry.