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Manchin's Mountain Valley Pipeline would get the green light debt ceiling deal

Jul 16, 2023

Sen. Joe Manchin's monthslong effort to greenlight the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline – a project that will pipe methane gas across parts of West Virginia and Virginia – is likely to prevail in the bipartisan debt ceiling deal, angering environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers.

Manchin helped secure a provision in the deal that would compel federal agencies to approve all remaining permits for the approximately 300-mile natural gas pipeline, as well as shield the project from further litigation.

The conservative Democrat from West Virginia, who has been critical of the Biden administration's environmental goals, praised the White House and congressional Republicans this week.

"All of a sudden, [the White House] did their job, they negotiated. And Kevin McCarthy did his job by putting something first and starting this negotiation. So, I applaud both sides," Manchin said in a Tuesday interview on a West Virginia radio show, "Talkline."

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While attaching the pipeline to the must-pass legislation has delighted West Virginia lawmakers, environmental groups are furious that Congress stepped in after they had successfully challenged the pipeline in court. As recently as last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had struck down permits for the project on the grounds that they violate the Clean Water Act.

"Literally, they are changing the rules as we are playing the game," Crystal Cavalier-Keck, co-founder of indigenous environmental justice group 7 Directions of Service, told reporters on a Tuesday call.

Environmental groups excoriated the effort to carve out exceptions for the pipeline as "immoral" and "unconscionable," and some heaped blame on President Joe Biden's administration as well as congressional lawmakers.

"For this administration to profess that it cares about environmental justice, and then greenlight Mountain Valley Pipeline while gutting the National Environmental Policy Act, is abhorrent and wrong," Tennessee state lawmaker Justin Pearson, a Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

But White House officials said they defended Biden's major climate law in the debt ceiling talks and successfully pushed back on Republican efforts to further weaken environmental protections.

"President Biden protected his historic climate legislation, stopped House Republicans from clawing back record funding for environmental justice projects, and secured a deal to get hundreds of clean energy projects online faster all while protecting the full scope of environmental reviews," White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan said in a statement.

The 300-mile-long pipeline would transport gas from West Virginia's Marcellus and Utica shale areas to Virginia. The pipeline would cross waterways and federal national forest lands, which is why it went through a complex environmental permitting process and led to multiple lawsuits.

The project has been severely delayed, in part, because several of the court challenges were upheld by the Virginia-based Fourth Circuit court of appeals, which has repeatedly tossed the project's permits, citing environmental violations.

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"We keep getting the same judges and they keep throwing it out," former West Virginia University law professor James Van Nostrand told CNN in an interview last year. "The developers have done such a horrible job of complying with the laws."

Manchin attempted to greenlight the pipeline last year through a bill that ultimately failed when Senate Republicans, angry at Manchin for his "yea" vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, killed its chances. White House officials backed Manchin's effort last year, and climate and energy officials – including White House senior adviser John Podesta and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm – voiced support for approving the pipeline more recently.

A White House official said the debt limit provision makes good on a compromise that the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Manchin last year to secure his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.

In recent months, the Biden administration has signed off on several federal permits the project needed. But the debt ceiling legislation, if passed, would go another step further to shield a litigation-plagued project from further legal action. The legislation only allows the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to hear challenges on the legislation, rather than the project itself.

There could be a last-ditch effort to undo the pipeline piece of the debt ceiling bill. Lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have filed amendments to strip the pipeline from the legislation, with a coalition of Virginia Democrats in the US House supporting the effort, as well as a Republican congressman from Texas.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, also plans to file a Senate amendment to do just that – but it's unclear if any of these efforts will be successful.

"Sen. Kaine is extremely disappointed by the provision of the bill to greenlight the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia, bypassing the normal judicial and administrative review process every other energy project has to go through," a Kaine spokesperson said in a statement.

While that effort plays out in Congress, environmental groups are planning a sit-in protest in front of the White House next week to protest the pipeline.