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Biden Administration Approves Key Permit for West Virginia Gas Pipeline

May 30, 2023


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By Lisa Friedman

The Biden administration has granted a crucial permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project championed by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, despite opposition from climate experts and environmental groups.

The decision by the United States Forest Service, issued late Monday, would allow the pipeline to run through 3.5 miles of Jefferson National Forest, which straddles West Virginia and Virginia.

The move injects momentum into the $6.6 billion project, intended to carry gas about 300 miles from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia across nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands before ending in Virginia.

It also delivers a significant victory to Mr. Manchin, a Democrat who strongly supports fossil fuels and who faces a potentially difficult re-election campaign next year. The approval is being interpreted by some as the administration's attempt to placate Mr. Manchin, who in recent weeks has railed against what he calls the Biden administration's "radical climate agenda."

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has been opposed for years by environmentalists, civil rights activists and many Virginia Democrats. Scientists also have warned that nations must stop approving new fossil fuel projects if they want to constrain global warming, something President Biden has said is a top priority.

But while Mr. Biden has put in place an ambitious climate agenda, he needs Mr. Manchin, as well as moderate Republicans, to achieve his goals. They are considered key to passing legislation that the White House says is critical for speeding the construction of new wind, solar and other renewable energy projects.

In recent months, Mr. Biden has taken steps to bolster fossil fuels and placate centrists, while also trying to deflect Republican criticism that his climate policies are harming American energy security. His administration approved the enormous Willow oil project in Alaska, as well as increased exports of liquefied natural gas from Alaska. Both projects were supported by Mr. Manchin and Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who is also an important swing vote for Mr. Biden.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Equitrans Midstream, the Pennsylvania-based company that is building the pipeline, says construction is nearly complete. But the project has been mired in legal delays for about four years.

Courts have twice rejected the Forest Service's attempts to issue a permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to be built through the Jefferson National Forest. Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the government's environmental reviews had "inadequately" considered the impacts of erosion, among other issues.

The national forest is home to five protected species, including the endangered candy darter, a colorful freshwater fish, as well as old-growth forest. Environmentalists have adamantly opposed the project, arguing it would destroy sensitive land and ecosystems.

Jessica Sims, Virginia Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, an environmental group that opposes the pipeline, said the Biden administration decision "grossly underestimates the lasting environmental harms from the project."

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is not a done deal. Fresh lawsuits challenging the Forest Service decision are expected. There is also a lawsuit pending regarding a recent Fish and Wildlife Service permitting decision in favor of the pipeline.

More regulatory hurdles also remain. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for approving pipelines that cross state lines, must decide whether to issue required permits.

Mr. Manchin said in a statement, "While I’m pleased with the announcement from the Forest Service, the job isn't done yet, and I will keep pushing the administration and all involved to finally complete the last 20 miles of this vital pipeline."

Lisa Friedman reports on federal climate and environmental policy from Washington. She has broken multiple stories about the Trump administration's efforts to repeal climate change regulations and limit the use of science in policymaking. @LFFriedman


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