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Environmental activists are outraged by the agreement between President Biden and Republicans to raise the debt ceiling because it will also speed up the construction of a bitterly controversial natural gas pipeline and includes unusual measures to insulate the project from judicial review.
The $6.6 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline, intended to carry natural gas about 300 miles from West Virginia’s Marcellus shale fields through nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands before terminating in Virginia, is a major priority of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, but fought with environmentalists and many Virginia Democrats for a decade.
A constellation of environmental groups condemned the inclusion of the pipeline in a debt limit agreement, with one group, Climate Defiance, planning to protest Tuesday night at the New York home of Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader.
One of the companies behind the pipeline, NextEra Energy, is a major donor to Mr. Schumer and Mr. Manchin. In the 2022 cycle, NextEra employees and political action committees gave $302,600 to Mr. Schumer and $60,350 to Mr. Manchin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Manchin faces a potentially difficult re-election campaign next year, and pushing the pipeline to completion will help him with voters. Gov. Jim Justice, a popular Democrat-turned-Republican, has announced that he will seek the Senate seat in West Virginia, a ruby red state that President Trump carried by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020. The stay in that seat is a priority for Democrats.
“We are in a sad moment,” Climate Defiance wrote on Twitter. “The politicians we trust with our lives are selling us out to fossil fuel CEOs. We’re being stabbed in the back. We don’t know if we’re going to win but dammit we’re not going to fall without a peaceful uprising that hasn’t you can see.
But White House negotiators, who inserted the pipeline language into the debt limit deal, said Mr. Biden was honoring an agreement he made last summer with Mr. Manchin to secure the senator’s tiebreaking vote to pass the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which included much more. than $370 billion for clean energy projects.
White House officials say the benefits from that law will far outweigh any new greenhouse gas emissions created as a result of the West Virginia pipeline. They also noted that they prevented Republicans from reinstating several clean energy provisions in the climate law as part of the debt limit compromise.
The bill includes several other small measures aimed at getting energy projects of all kinds approved more quickly by changing federal approval policies under the National Environmental Policy Act. White House officials said they view the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline as largely a fait accompli, as more than half of the project has been built and only a handful of permits remain to be issued.
But opponents of the pipeline argue that completion is less certain because more court cases are pending. A provision in the debt agreement may deem challenges moot, and prevent any future lawsuits.
The agreement would order federal agencies to approve any outstanding permits for the pipeline within 21 days and exempt those permits from judicial review. And if any entity wants to challenge the legality of that decision, the legislation transfers jurisdiction from the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, where environmentalists have won some court victories, to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Circuit.
“This is an unprecedented end run around the courts, which have repeatedly rejected the MVP permit for failure to comply with basic environmental laws,” said Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, which challenged some permits related to the pipeline. “We are reviewing the legal implications of this proposal and our next steps.”
In March, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that argued the pipeline should be subject to stronger Clean Water Act reviews.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said he plans to file an amendment to remove the pipeline language from the debt limit bill. A spokesman for Mr. Kaine said he was “extremely disappointed” by the language that “skips the normal judicial and administrative review process every other energy project must go through.”
On Tuesday, six House Democrats in Virginia submitted a similar amendment, though they did not threaten to vote down the larger bill if their effort to change it was unsuccessful.
“We have serious concerns about the adverse climate and environmental justice impacts this project will have on vulnerable communities in our Commonwealth,” Virginia House Democrats said in a statement. “This project will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us, including low-income, seniors, and tribal and Native communities across Virginia.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline has been opposed for years by environmentalists and civil rights activists. Scientists have warned that countries must stop approving new fossil fuel projects if they want to curb global warming, something President Biden has said is a priority. priority.
It is unusual for Congress to intervene to protect specific infrastructure projects from court oversight, said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law expert at Columbia University. At a similar time in the 1970s, legislators from Tennessee were able to exempt a dam in their state from the Endangered Species Act to overcome legal challenges, a move that gained widespread attention at the time.
The effort to fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline could set a precedent for other projects tied up in the courts, Mr. Gerrard added. “One can imagine another company saying to their favorite senator, ‘Hey, Joe Manchin did it for them, why not for us?'” he said.
Some activists warned that the move would cost Mr. Biden’s election-year support among young, climate-minded voters who helped elect him in 2020 but are now angered by his administration’s approval of several fossil fuel projects, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline , the Alaska oil drilling project known as Willow, and a controversial pipeline project that would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil through Minnesota’s dangerous watersheds.
That anger comes even as Mr. Biden has pushed through two new climate laws, which are expected to reduce America’s climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions by up to one billion tons by 2030, as well as the proposed regulations could eliminate up to 15. billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2055.
Federal regulators estimate that if all the natural gas carried by the Mountain Valley Pipeline were burned in power plants and homes, it would release about 40 million tons of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent of nine million car every year.
But calculating the full impact of climate change is much more difficult, experts say. Some of that gas could still be burned even if the pipeline wasn’t built, and some of it could replace coal, a dirtier fuel widely used in the Southeast, though regulators haven’t tried to quantify it. reasons.
Many climate policy experts say that in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, it is worth allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to continue the Inflation Reduction Act.
In a closely divided Congress, compromise is essential, said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist helping Barack Obama win the White House. “The question is whether the steps forward you’re taking are more than any steps you should be taking to get these deals done,” he said. “And Biden did the calculations.”
And by giving Mr. With Manchin’s victory trumpeting his constituents, Democrats can hope to hold on to the West Virginia Senate seat, “which has more benefits in terms of long-term climate policies and politics,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide at the Clinton administration, wrote in an email.
Mr. Axelrod said he did not think Mr. Biden would lose the support of climate voters once the race for the presidency was clearly defined.
“The question at the end of the day is, not how people feel now, but what judgments they will make in the fall of 2024,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But the choice is likely to be so strong and important for climate action that it’s probably a good bet that people will be very motivated.”