After Democrats pass climate bill, progressives vow to fight Manchin’s permitting deal

Progressives ardently oppose new fossil-fuel infrastructure construction, arguing such projects lock in additional decades of continued use of fossil fuels — and the emissions that come with them.

August 12, 2022

House Democrats managed to maintain party discipline in passing a historic climate bill heavily influenced by fossil fuel state centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) on Friday. But a contentious, intraparty battle on permitting of energy projects lies ahead.

Progressives ultimately supported the Inflation Reduction Act now heading to President Joe Biden's desk despite it spending less to fight climate change than initially envisioned in the Build Back Better legislation. But they are now vowing to fight a secondary agreement struck by Manchin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden to pass permitting reform legislation aimed at speeding up the building of oil and gas pipelines, green infrastructure projects and mines to dig up critical minerals.

"I am not going to be steamrolled into a bunch of fossil fuel give-aways just because Manchin cut a deal in a closed room with Chuck Schumer,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). “He doesn’t get to run the show on something like this, and many of us will have a say on what that deal looks like if it even happens."

The permitting measure was detached from the climate bill because it does not fit the rules of the strict budgetary process Democrats used to approve the legislation on a simple majority basis in the Senate.

That means permitting legislation would have to go through the regular order process and earn 60 votes in the Senate — requiring Democratic and Republican support — to pass.

But Democrats would also need to hold the support of their progressive members in the House, since the party only holds the lower chamber by a small margin — and that prospect seems far from certain.

“Environmental justice communities know all too well that permitting reform is nothing more than industry code for the systematic gutting of our most foundational environmental and public health protections, like the National Environmental Policy Act," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, in a written statement. "Polluting industries may have won that promise in a deal with a select few, but I intend to do everything in my power to convince the rest of my colleagues to break it.”

Democratic leaders have said they plan to pass permitting legislation as part of a resolution to fund the government beyond Sept. 30 — after they return from their month-long summer recess. By attaching the permitting measure to a must-pass bill, it puts opponents in a difficult position since blocking its passage would risk shutting down the government.

“None of us were consulted on the permitting pieces of this,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The jury is still out. I don't think anyone should take those votes for granted.”

The biggest concern of progressives is that Manchin said he's secured a commitment from Democratic leaders to facilitate the construction of a major home-state natural gas pipeline as part of any permitting bill. Manchin says the agreement would mandate the federal government work to complete the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would send natural gas through his home state of West Virginia to the East Coast.

Progressives ardently oppose new fossil-fuel infrastructure construction, arguing such projects lock in additional decades of continued use of fossil fuels — and the emissions that come with them.

"The permitting really has to be looked at in detail to make sure it’s not going to allow new fossil fuel infrastructure around the country,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “That reform has to be looked at carefully to make sure it doesn't gut the environmental safeguards so many people have fought for decades."

The details Manchin’s office released summarizing his agreement on permitting reform with Democratic leaders would also direct the president to designate 25 energy projects of “strategic national importance” to get high-priority federal review, as well as set two-year review deadlines for "major" initiatives. Those high-priority infrastructure projects would have to be “balanced” among various types of energy, covering critical minerals, nuclear, hydrogen, fossil fuels, electric transmission, renewables and carbon capture.

Manchin’s proposal would also address “excessive” litigation delays during project development by setting a statute of limitations for court challenges and “improve” a section of the Clean Water Act that's held up multiple pipelines as states utilize it to stop or stall construction within their borders for environmental reasons.

There’s broad recognition among industry, environmentalists and labor that infrastructure projects take too long to build in the U.S., and that easing permitting rules would benefit not just traditional projects like highways, bridges and oil and gas pipelines, but also hasten a major expansion of renewable energy and transmission projects needed to reach net-zero emissions.

Transmission lines in particular often face delays for a decade or more due to public opposition at the local level, since primary siting authority lies with individual states, not the federal government.

“We have got to have an expedited process for clean energy transmission,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), the chairman of the House Select Climate Committee. “This patchwork of state regulation is a hindrance to building the macrogrid and to attaching clean energy resources in the center part of the country and getting it out to population centers. We are looking forward to that challenge.”

Indeed, many Democrats say they recognize the problem and see reforming the permitting process as key to unlocking the billions in clean energy funding they approved as part of their climate bill.

“We are going to have a candid conversation because the environmental movement of the previous generations was organized around stopping development,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “The modern environmental movement has to be about building things. There is nothing progressive about not enabling a clean energy transformation.”

But working out the details will be a complicated undertaking, with progressives already warning against wholesale gutting of NEPA while Republicans blindsided by Manchin’s climate deal doubt Democrats can agree on any significant changes.

"I will believe it when I see it,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the top Republican of the Natural Resources Committee. “Just because Joe Manchin made a side deal or backroom deal with somebody else, that means zero to me.”

Despite permitting reform being a long-time GOP priority, many Republicans — like the progressives — have also refused to commit to supporting permitting measures sought by Manchin.

“Where is the trust factor here? Oh yeah, we are going to put together a permitting deal when everything Democrats have done so far is hostile to fossil fuels,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

By:  Josh Siegel
Source: Politico Pro