Politics

The unlikely allies who sank Joe Manchin’s energy deal

In a surprising team-up, progressives and Republicans banded together to oppose a bill backed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) that would have loosened oil and gas permitting regulations, forcing lawmakers to drop the measure from a must-pass government funding package.

Following growing pressure from both groups, Manchin called for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to cut the permitting reforms from a short-term funding bill just before it was scheduled to go up for a vote on Tuesday.

Manchin said in a statement he didn’t want to put government funding at risk and added that “a failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only serves to embolden leaders like Putin who wish to see America fail.”

Because of the collective pushback from progressives and Republicans, the bill wouldn’t have had the 60 votes it needed to advance if permitting reform were left in the package. By removing it, lawmakers cleared the way for the funding bill to pass the Senate as well as the House, where many Democrats had also spoken out against the inclusion of this proposal.

This outcome is ultimately the result of both policy disagreements and personal grudges. While progressives were staunchly against the permitting measure due to environmental concerns, Republicans opposed it because they felt the bill didn’t relax restrictions enough. And in the wake of Manchin’s support for Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act — which passed along party lines — Republicans were eager to prevent him from getting a win, despite their own interest in the same reforms.

In the end, their collective opposition was enough to remove the policy from consideration for now.

Why progressives opposed Manchin’s bill

Manchin’s permitting reforms were part of an agreement he originally made with Schumer earlier this year. In that deal, Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act — a landmark health care and climate bill — and Schumer agreed to hold a vote on permitting reforms, which the West Virginia senator has long pushed for. Because the short-term funding bill must pass for the government to pay its bills, the plan was to attach the permitting reforms to this measure.

Manchin and other Democrats who’ve supported the deal have argued that streamlining the permitting process would mean that projects get completed more quickly and that the US would be able to accelerate its energy production. Additionally, the permitting bill would give the federal government more jurisdiction over electricity transmission projects across state lines, a provision that some Democrats argue would help improve the delivery of renewable energy.

The reforms that Manchin wanted, however, quickly garnered progressive pushback.

In particular, progressives argued that setting a two-year target for the completion of environmental reviews and reducing the time community members have to file legal challenges would have significantly weakened residents’ ability to protect their communities.

Manchin’s measure would have also guaranteed permit approvals for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline running through West Virginia and Virginia, which has been blocked by the courts due to environmental impacts. This provision in particular was concerning for a number of Democrats, who saw the move as circumventing the courts’ decision to slow the development of the pipeline to the benefit of the energy companies involved in the project.

“Allowing a corporation that is unhappy about losing a case to strip jurisdiction away from the entire court that is handled the case is [unprecedented],” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) previously told E&E News. “It would open the door for massive abuse and corruption, so I can’t support it.”

The Democratic senators opposing the plan joined more than 70 House members, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who pushed House leadership to separate the permitting reforms legislation from the CR earlier this month. That message was echoed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who denounced the Manchin deal as a “giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.”

Republicans didn’t like Manchin’s permitting reform for other reasons

Separately, Republicans have expressed their own issues with Manchin’s legislation. Since multiple Democrats in addition to Sanders opposed the bill, Manchin would have needed more than 10 Republicans to support it for it to hit the 60-vote threshold required for passage. The GOP backing he received ultimately fell short, with just Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) saying publicly that she would vote for the legislation.

As Politico reported, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was actively whipping lawmakers against voting for the Manchin bill, even though Republicans have long been eager to advance permitting reforms. Depriving Manchin of a win he’s sought for years, especially after he joined with Democrats for the party-line passage of the IRA, was a central issue at play.

“Given what Senator Manchin did on the reconciliation bill, [it’s] engendered a lot of bad blood,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) previously told Politico.

It’s a dynamic that echoes past instances when legislators have opposed bills whose aims they support because they don’t want the other side to secure a success. Recently, for example, Republicans blocked a bill that helped expand health care access to veterans who were exposed to burn pits, even though they had approved a nearly identical one just weeks earlier. GOP lawmakers argued that they disagreed with the bill because of how the money in it would be allocated, while Democrats contended that it was because they were upset about the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

In addition to the personal issues involved, Republicans argued that they want more aggressive permitting legislation, which could further limit the environmental review process and exempt certain projects from scrutiny.

The uncertain future of the permitting reforms

This may not be the end of the fight over permitting reforms.

The current continuing resolution is expected to expire on December 16, and it’s possible that Manchin could push to hitch the measure onto the next funding bill. Congress is also set to consider the National Defense Authorization Act, another must-pass bill that lays out a budget for the US military; he could try to add it to that bill as well.

Progressives and Republicans have also urged consideration of their versions of permitting reforms, and it’s unclear if any future attempt at legislation would incorporate some of their demands.

Grijalva has sponsored the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would make health impacts a bigger consideration in the permitting process, for example. Republicans’ bill, meanwhile, seeks to curb the inspections that energy projects face. And senators like Kaine have said they’d be more open to the Manchin proposal if it did not include the provision greenlighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

For now, lawmakers are poised to move forward with a cleaner version of the CR, which would keep the government funded and contain another $12 billion in aid to Ukraine and $20 million to address the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. This legislation has bipartisan support and would help avert a government shutdown if passed in the coming days.

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