Late on Saturday, as members of Congress scrambled to strike a deal for legislation that would raise the nation’s debt ceiling, they agreed to a total non sequitur in the text they would release the next day. Following a series of late-in-the-game interventions by lobbyists and energy executives, the draft bill declared the construction and operation of a natural gas pipeline to be “required in the national interest.” It wasn’t really germane to the debt ceiling, at least not in the literal sense. But then again, it wasn’t any ordinary pipeline.
Building the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile-long conduit to bring fracked gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia, has been a top priority for Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia since the project was announced in 2014. The problem, for him and the project’s other supporters, is that it has been fiercely opposed by grass-roots groups and landowners living in the project’s path for just as long. Construction on the project was recently stalled after federal judges found that regulatory agencies had repeatedly failed to comply with environmental laws.
By forcing through this pipeline, the Biden administration rounded out the ransom sought by Republicans holding the global economy hostage, and paid off a debt of its own to Mr. Manchin for his crucial vote last year for the Inflation Reduction Act.
Pushing the pipeline over the finish line through blunt legislative force now stands to enshrine in federal law an insidious piece of misinformation, if the Senate passes the bill the House passed Wednesday: the claim that the pumping, piping and burning of more fossil fuels is — despite all scientific evidence and common sense to the contrary — a climate solution.
Natural gas is predominantly made up of methane, a climate-warming super-pollutant that is responsible for about a third of the warming the world has experienced to date. If completed, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will be a very large and long-lived methane delivery device. At the wells that feed it and along the way, some of that methane will inevitably leak into the atmosphere, where each molecule will exert 86 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. At the end of the line, the methane will be burned in power plants and furnaces, producing carbon dioxide. Taken together, by one estimate, the M.V.P. would generate yearly emissions equivalent to what’s produced by 26 coal plants.
And yet, the bill’s text asserts — in a brazen stroke of climate gaslighting — that the pipeline will “reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition.”
Businesses and governments have long claimed gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future, a “transition” fuel that would tide us over until renewables were ready for prime time. But now that wind, solar and battery storage are indeed quite ready and, in many places, cheaper than gas, the jig is up. That makes the Mountain Valley Pipeline a project in search of a rationale: There are cheaper sources of gas available via existing pipelines, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that demand for gas in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions will continue to drop off in the years and decades ahead.
Though the assertions that the pipeline is necessary and good for the climate defy logic, the political calculus is clear enough. Congressional Democrats and President Biden want to reward Mr. Manchin, who is weighing whether to run in what is sure to be a tough re-election fight in 2024.
Mr. Manchin was also a supporter of another large gas pipeline that would have originated in his state: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which I have been reporting on since 2019. The two pipelines were twins, announced on the same day in 2014 and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the same day in 2017. They would have crossed similarly steep and landslide-prone Appalachian terrain. But the A.C.P. was canceled in 2020 after years of tenacious grass-roots resistance and successful legal challenges.
Mr. Manchin seems determined to rescue the Mountain Valley Pipeline from this fate. And with it, his gas industry and power utility donors — whose lobbyists helped him in the final hours of debt ceiling deal making — will be able to further strengthen their foothold in the energy system.
White House officials have said that the project would probably have secured the remaining federal permits regardless. But the provision authorizes all necessary permits and bars further judicial review of any of them — thus neutering an essential tool for ensuring that infrastructure projects comply with existing laws and regulations. It’s the legislative equivalent of overturning the Scrabble board in a fit of pique when you’re losing a game fair and square.
For many of those living in the project’s path, who watched as its construction has so far triggered over 500 recorded violations of water quality and other regulations, it’s a terrible betrayal. But it also sets a dangerous precedent. It is it’s safe to assume this won’t be the last time this tactic is pursued to shield fossil fuel projects from judicial review or scientific scrutiny, if they happen to be deemed by their developers and political allies to be in the “national interest.”
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia has cited this risk in explaining his opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline provision. When Mr. Manchin succeeded in getting a similar carve-out attached to the continuing budget resolution to fund the government last September, Mr. Kaine refused to vote for it. “If the M.V.P. owners are unhappy with a court ruling, they should do what other litigants do and appeal,” he said. “Allowing them to fundamentally change federal law to achieve their goal would surely encourage other wealthy people and companies to try the same. I won’t participate in opening that door to abuse and even corruption.”
Mr. Kaine, along with other Democratic members of the Virginia congressional delegation, remains opposed; this week he said he’s against any debt-ceiling bill that exempts the Mountain Valley Pipeline from judicial review. Meanwhile one of the lead Republican negotiators told reporters this week the pipeline provision is a “huge win” for his party, because it puts “Democrats on record supporting a conventional energy project that removes or ties the hands of the judiciary.”
Democratic leaders will surely bristle at the suggestion that they are helping the gas industry obstruct the transition to clean energy. After all, they passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, and protected its raft of clean energy incentives from cuts in the debt ceiling deal. It’s clear that the deal makers regard themselves as the grown-ups in the room, making the tough trade-offs needed to avert financial catastrophe. But when the stakes are this large, one need not grant them that deference.
There’s always a political “crisis” gathering on the near horizon that will supersede concerns about the climate — that will cause us to look away from the dizzying rise of methane concentrations, currently spiking to levels not seen in over 800,000 years, a trend tracking with the worst-case climate scenarios.
This is what it looks like to shuffle along toward climate chaos, one misguided “compromise” at a time.
Jonathan Mingle is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Gaslight: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Fight for America’s Energy Future.” As a recent Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, he reported on the future of natural gas.
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