Environmentalists celebrated Wednesday as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., admitted defeat in his effort to attach a measure that would make it easier to build energy infrastructure to must-pass government funding legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the removal of the energy provisions from the funding bill on Tuesday evening, as it was clear that the 60 votes needed to pass were not forthcoming, due to opposition from both Republicans and progressives.
Schumer had agreed to try to pass a Manchin-drafted bill that would streamline the federal permitting process for energy projects, both clean energy and fossil fuels. That was part of a deal in exchange for Manchin’s decisive vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, the name for Democrats’ sweeping health care and climate change legislation.
“Senate Republicans have made very clear they will block legislation to fund the government if it includes bipartisan permitting reform,” Schumer said.
“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,” Manchin said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Environmental justice and climate change activists immediately declared victory. They had opposed the permitting reform initiative because it would have made it easier for fossil fuel projects to gain approval. In particular, Manchin wanted a guarantee of swift approval of the Mountain Valley pipeline, which would carry natural gas drilled in his home state to larger markets. Environmentalists feared the risk of increased greenhouse gas emissions as well as the local pollution that often accompanies oil and gas wells and pipelines, which often falls hardest on lower-income communities and communities of color.
“Good riddance to Manchin’s dirty backroom deal and the bottom-of-the-barrel politics that it represented,” said Jean Su, a program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement Tuesday evening. “This is a huge win for our climate and the countless communities that continue to suffer from fossil fuel pollution."
Hundreds of climate and environmental justice organizations had signed letters to congressional leaders opposing Manchin’s proposal.
Climate leaders in Congress had initially expressed openness to permitting reform on the grounds that a faster build-out process would boost wind and solar generation, as well as transmission and storage of clean energy. But most of them had gradually come out against attaching permitting reform to the government funding bill, known as a continuing resolution. Seventy-seven mostly liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives had signed a letter to their party’s leadership written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., objecting to attaching permitting reform to the continuing resolution.
In the Senate, eight leading climate hawks, including Edward Markey, D-Mass., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent a letter to Schumer calling for splitting permitting reform from the government funding resolution.
“For many years, siting decisions for big infrastructure projects have essentially prioritized the perceived societal benefits of fossil energy over the very real costs disproportionately borne by communities of color, low-income communities, and others who have traditionally been marginalized,” the senators wrote.
Merkley celebrated their success on Tuesday. “This is the right move,” he said in a statement. “This permitting legislation should likewise not be put on any future ‘must-pass’ legislation for a host of reasons.”
Nonetheless, Merkley and some climate activists are still interested in changes to the permitting process in a standalone bill.
“While we do need to consider changes to the laws regarding permitting of electrical transmission lines to bring new renewable energy onto the grid, we must not simultaneously speed the approval of additional fossil fuel energy projects,” Merkley said. “We must pivot boldly and quickly to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
It’s unlikely that Democrats could get the votes for a standalone bill that streamlines permitting for clean energy but not fossil fuels. Such a measure would require 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster, and it does not appear that there would be the 10 GOP votes needed for the measure to pass the evenly split Senate.
Some climate policy experts say there is still a need for federal leadership in smoothing the complicated, years-long environmental review process for future energy projects such as offshore wind farms and the transmission lines needed to bring that energy to consumers.
“There are significant interconnection backlogs which complicate the objectives of the Inflation Reduction Act and broader climate priorities,” Michael Davidson, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, told Yahoo News. “Transmission requires coordinating a slew of actors, some of whom see little benefit to individual projects. The federal government could play a much more proactive role, either through fiat or more indirectly through incentives to get stakeholders to the table, in order to address the pressing need for more transmission.”
Climate activists like Lena Moffitt, chief of staff at Evergreen Action, believe that most of that can happen without new legislation.
“FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] actually has two rules that they are working on that would help expedite building transmission lines, and they need to quickly finalize those rules because they could help a lot,” Moffitt told Yahoo News. “There’s a lot that federal agencies can do with existing authority to make sure we’re building the power grid we need to bring on clean energy and they need to use all those authorities as fast as they can.”
One of the rules, the regional transmission planning and cost allocation rule, would require regional coordination between the nation’s more than 300 utilities, because future solar and wind power may be generated in different regions than where the electricity is consumed. It would also potentially make changes to how the costs of building new transmission lines are distributed to make it easier for clean energy startups to come online quickly.
The other rule, the interconnection rule, would help new renewable energy sources get connected quickly to the grid.
The infrastructure investment law signed by President Biden last year also granted new authorities to FERC and the Department of Energy to help speed approval of interstate transmission lines.
“That gives both of those agencies a more expansive opportunity to approve interstate power lines when a state [public utility commission] may have said no to it, and they need to use that authority to make sure those power lines are coming online quickly,” Moffitt said.
“Are legislative changes probably still needed? Yes, but there’s a lot [federal agencies] can do now that they need to do,” she said.
Other experts said they were unsurprised that Manchin’s attempt to make an end run around that process had failed.
“I don’t think [Manchin’s bill] ever really had a serious chance of success,” said David Victor, also a professor at UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. “Whenever you decouple these matters you make the weak part of the coupling vulnerable to failure.”
Victor noted that a previous decoupling had worked in Manchin’s favor. When congressional progressives had dropped their insistence that the bipartisan infrastructure law only be passed in concert with the Build Back Better domestic spending package, the result was passage of only the infrastructure law.
“The same problem happened when the infrastructure bill got coupled to Build Back Better,” Victor said, referring to the first iteration of the Democrats’ spending package. “The claim that the two would remain coupled forever was never credible.”