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After bipartisan rebuff, Manchin abandons private legislative deal to help fossil fuel projects

Sens. Joe Manchin III and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
Sen. Joe Manchin III preemptively blamed “revenge politics” for the defeat of his measure.
(Tom Williams / Associated Press)
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This time, what Sen. Joe Manchin III wanted didn’t matter.

Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has essentially wielded veto power over Democrats’ agenda as a key swing vote in a split Senate, conceded defeat Tuesday as it became increasingly clear that colleagues from both parties would reject his bid to speed up government approval of new energy projects.

Manchin asked Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to remove his permitting proposal — which was coupled with a must-pass government funding bill — setting the stage for Congress to approve the funding bill without Manchin’s pet project.

For more than a year, the conservative Democrat had frustrated both political parties in a 50-50 Senate, at times siding with his party to pass big spending bills and other times forcing Democrats to scale back or abandon their ambitions.

After resisting Democrats’ sweeping climate and healthcare bill for months, Manchin reached a private agreement this summer with Schumer to support a smaller domestic-spending package — the Inflation Reduction Act — in exchange for a commitment from Schumer to hold a vote on permitting reform legislation that would provide special help to a fossil fuel project in his state.

It was thought that many Republicans and moderate Democrats might support a proposal to reduce government bureaucracy and delays.

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Many progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), lined up against it, while a few noted that the reforms would have also aided clean-energy expansion.

But nearly everyone shared outrage over Manchin’s tactics, and in the end he couldn’t corral enough support to overcome what he framed as “revenge politics.”

“It is unfortunate that members of the United States Senate are allowing politics to put the energy security of our nation at risk,” Manchin said in a statement. “A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only serves to embolden leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who wish to see America fail.”

Before the permitting provision was pulled, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor that Manchin had no one to blame but himself.

“If tepid Democrat support for this phony fig leaf is all that our colleague from West Virginia got in return for approving yet another taxes and spending spree during an inflation crisis, it’s hard to imagine a worse bargain — for a senator, or for the country,” McConnell said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters he hoped Manchin would now work with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) on an alternative permitting bill that could pass as either a stand-alone or attachment to a defense spending bill or a larger government spending package in December.

Congress is expected to advance a measure to fund the government through Dec. 16 as a stand-alone ahead of Friday night’s deadline.

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The government funding package largely maintains current spending levels, but includes $12.3 billion for Ukraine.

Manchin’s proposal would have made it easier to build power plants, dams, pipelines, transmission lines, wind turbines and solar farms.

Groups including the Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace USA had warned Manchin’s legislation would be a boon for the fossil fuel industry.

The bill would have set a two-year time limit for environmental reviews for major energy projects, established a 150-day limit for filing court challenges and mandated that the president create a rolling list of 25 energy projects of “strategic national importance” for quicker review — five of which must have been fossil fuel projects.

Green groups were especially irritated that part of the bill would have fast tracked the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a nearly complete 300-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas from Manchin’s home state to southern Virginia.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) announced his opposition Tuesday morning, arguing that he had no opportunity to convey Virginians’ concerns before the pipeline provision was drafted, despite more than 100 miles of the pipeline running through his state.

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Some in the renewable energy industry supported the coal-state senator’s bill and wanted a more expedited review process, citing the 4½-year average permitting process for energy projects and an even longer process for transmission lines.

“We must put politics aside and come together to pass common-sense and overdue permitting reforms,” Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Assn., a trade group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last week.
The American Council on Renewable Energy, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, also backed the bill, the group’s president said in a statement last week.

The Biden administration supported the reforms, too, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Friday.

Proponents said permitting reform could speed up some clean energy projects. Projects that could provide 18,581 megawatts of offshore wind power — enough for nearly 15 million homes — are tied up in the permitting process, according to a 2022 Department of Energy report. Getting federal permits for transmission lines takes an average of five to 10 years, and the process can change dramatically when a new president takes office, said Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies LLC, a clean energy consulting firm.

Land disputes and permitting for transmission lines were among the largest barriers to two massive wind energy projects that sought to bring power from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.

The federal approval process for transmission lines is often the major holdup preventing new renewable energy projects from being completed in a timely manner, Gramlich said.

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“Any transmission lines in the [West] will almost certainly cross some federally-managed land, which means you need a permit from a federal agency, and that process will take multiple years and many hundreds of pages and deep applications,” Gramlich said.

Others involved in clean power remained wary of Manchin’s reforms, including the agency behind one of California’s most consequential renewable energy projects — one that has been tied up in permitting issues for years .

Twenty-five miles off the Northern California coast of Humboldt County is the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, one of the country’s most ideal spots to harvest wind energy. Turbines in the 207-square-mile area have the potential to generate nearly 1.6 gigawatts, enough energy to power well over 1 million homes.

But Humboldt County is a relatively rural area with a population of only 140,000 people and a power station that cannot process that amount of electricity. A major holdup for using the full potential of the proposed wind project are transmission lines that would bring power south to more populated communities near the Bay Area.

“Anything more than 150 megawatts really can’t be exported out of our area,” said Matthew Marshall, executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a joint-power agency that finds renewable energy alternatives for local governments in Humboldt County. “To go beyond that will require significant upgrades.”

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority didn’t take a position on Manchin’s permitting reform. But two years of data just isn’t enough to fully understand the potential environmental impact of a large energy project, Marshall said.

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Marshall believes that a good permitting process and a successful project require meaningful dialog with the community. Too often large energy projects are approved after lengthy environmental impact reviews and developers rush to complete the job and leave town without addressing the ongoing concerns of the community, he added.

“Let’s do the amount of work that needs to be done to do it right,” he said, “and there’s not necessarily an arbitrary number of years for that.”

He does, however, think that a shorter permitting process would have its benefits.

“It would be good to figure out ways to keep the timeline tight, because the climate crisis is urgent and we need to move quickly,” Marshall said.

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