- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The deal for a long-sought $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline in West Virginia is just one of the energy plums that Sen. Joe Manchin III has secured in exchange for his support of Democrats’ broader tax and climate spending bill.

Another part of Mr. Manchin’s deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer calls for the Senate to approve a major streamlining of federal permitting for oil, gas and other energy projects by the end of September. Republicans don’t trust liberal Democrats to keep that bargain, which has outraged environmental activists.

Republicans hope to force a test vote this week to show that Democrats aren’t serious about speeding up domestic energy projects, long a goal of Republicans.

“I am very skeptical of what kind of deal can be cut on these kinds of very sensitive issues,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican. “What he’s saying is we’re going to move forward with this tax and spending bill — which we think will harm inflation and harm the American people — but then before the end of September, [he’s] been promised that we’re going to pass permitting reform.”

Mr. Manchin has insisted on streamlining the review and permit process for energy projects of all forms, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline in his home state of energy-producing West Virginia, to earn his support for the Inflation Reduction Act, which fellow Senate Democrats hope to pass along party lines as early as this week.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would deliver natural gas to mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, is near completion but has been stalled for years because of environmental litigation.

Greenlighting the project would mark a concession by the Biden administration, which has sought to focus on advancing the president’s clean energy and climate goals.

Mr. Manchin has argued that streamlining the government’s overall review and permit process is vital to the nation’s energy security and must be passed no later than Sept. 30, the end of the government’s budget year.

Environmentalists and some Democrats said cutting bureaucratic red tape under the National Environmental Policy Act could open the floodgates for new fossil fuel production.

“Chipping away at NEPA prioritizes polluting industries and fossil fuel interests over people who are dealing with prolonged exposure to toxic pollution,” Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said. “No deal should do further harm to NEPA or force the president to endorse new fossil fuels projects in the midst of our climate emergency.”

According to a one-page summary of the permitting deal provided by Mr. Manchin’s office, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would have jurisdiction over any further litigation. That requirement would move jurisdiction from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has ruled against the project.

In addition to the natural gas pipeline, Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, and the Biden administration have agreed to a slew of Mr. Manchin’s desired changes to the permit process for energy projects nationwide.

The permitting wins for Mr. Manchin are a sign of the immense power that he wields in a 50-50 split Senate. He also has used that influence to secure policies in favor of the oil and natural gas industry in the broader Inflation Reduction Act. Nearly $370 billion is set aside for climate and energy programs that Democrats say would reduce emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Between the permitting reform and the Inflation Reduction Act, Mr. Manchin has secured the following:

• Wind and solar projects that are contingent on the Interior Department offering at least 2 million acres per year for onshore oil and gas lease sales.

• Offshore wind contingency on at least 60 million acres in federal waters for oil and gas development each year.

• Reinstatement of a 1.7-million-acre lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico that was canceled this year.

• Tax credits for businesses that engage in carbon capture, the process of capturing and storing harmful greenhouse gas emissions underground.

• $500 million in spending to expand biofuel infrastructure.

• Time limits for permitting reviews, including two years for NEPA reviews for major projects and one year for lower-impact projects.

• A statute of limitations for court challenges to new energy projects.

• An enhancement of the federal government’s permitting authority for interstate electricity that is in the national interest, as determined by the secretary of energy.

• Presidential designation of at least 25 high-priority energy infrastructure projects (both clean energy and fossil fuels) and prioritizing permitting for these projects.

• Modification of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, including the requirement to make one of four final rulings within one year of certification requests for energy projects: grant, grant with conditions, deny or waive certification.

Given the deep opposition among environmental groups to changing the permit process, Republicans are highly skeptical that Democratic leaders will follow through next month. To prove their point, Republicans hope to force a test vote this week.

Republicans suggested that the best way to secure their support for revising the permitting process would be to overturn President Biden’s decision in April to reimplement a core climate regulation under the National Environmental Policy Act that was rolled back by President Trump. Republicans say it adds unnecessary and burdensome environmental reviews that can cause energy and infrastructure projects to be delayed for years.

Republican senators plan to force a vote to use the Congressional Review Act to kill Mr. Biden’s reinstatement of the regulation. A simple majority vote will be needed.

“If you’re serious about permitting reform, step one is to vote in favor of our resolution,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican. “Show us your commitment and how serious you are. I think these issues are actually connected.”

Although permitting reform also would benefit clean energy production, some environmentalists and Democrats fear it could give way to more domestic fossil fuel production that runs counter to their climate change action.

Mr. Manchin’s proposal seeks to cap timelines for review periods and set a statute of limitations for court challenges that are often waged by environmentalists to bog down oil and natural gas projects.

Earthjustice called it the “latest attack on environmental review.”

“Ensuring our communities and our clean air and water are protected is not a trade chip,” Sierra Club Deputy Legislative Director Mahyar Sorour said.

Other Democrats are cognizant of the concessions that must be made to secure Mr. Manchin’s support for the Inflation Reduction Act. They have expressed a more open-minded position.

“Sen. Schumer and Sen. Manchin said permitting has got to be part of it, and if they say that’s part of the deal, then we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “The planet is on fire. We can do something about it. We can create a lot of jobs doing it. Let’s not miss that opportunity.”

• Ramsey Touchberry can be reached at rtouchberry@washingtontimes.com.

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