U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. Official portrait.

Tuesday was the trade deadline in Major League Baseball and we saw the usual flurry of deals, including at least one that wasn’t just called the proverbial blockbuster but a “blockbuster for the ages” – that being slugger Juan Soto going from the Washington Nationals to the San Diego Padres.

The classic trades at the trade deadline go like this: A team that’s in contention feels it’s just one or maybe two players away from being able to make a World Series run. It looks to some out-of-contention team that has a star player, perhaps one near the end of his contract. The lower-placed team may figure the player won’t re-sign anyway, so if they don’t trade him now, they’ll get nothing in return when he leaves as a free agent at the end of the season. In return, the top team, desperate for talent now, even if only on a short-term basis, is happy to trade away some minor league prospects or sometimes the proverbial “player to be named later.” The top team gets help to win now; the lower team gets a youthful infusion of players who a few years from now may help it turn around. Someday that top team may regret losing those prospects but, for now, it feels no pain whatsoever, just the glory of immediate victory. 

We can see examples of this several ways. One is in how the Minnesota Twins, one game ahead of the Cleveland Guardians in the American League Central, shipped four minor leaguers to the Baltimore Orioles for their closer. Another is how the Nationals sent Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for six players – three current big leaguers and, most importantly, three of San Diego’s top minor league prospects. The final example is how top Democrats in Washington traded support for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in return for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s support for a broader package dealing with climate, energy and health care issues that they are promoting as an anti-inflation measure. (We know it’s an anti-inflation measure because it’s called the Inflation Reduction Act.)

Last week, the West Virginia Democrat surprised Washington when he announced he would support what The New York Times has called “a landmark climate bill” – not something the fossil fuel-friendly Mountain State senator is usually associated with. Now, we know why: CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post have all reported that top Democrats – the Times specifically cited President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the deal-makers – agreed to Manchin’s demand that they support the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Courtesy of MVP.

In effect, the Mountain Valley Pipeline – which would run from 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to Chatham, where it would connect with other pipelines – is that “player to be named later.” Biden, Schumer and Pelosi are like a contending team. They need to win now and will give up almost anything to get Manchin’s vote. For them, the Mountain Valley Pipeline is like some minor leaguer – important to somebody (in this case Manchin) but not a big name to them. If that’s what it took to secure the vote of one of the Senate’s most unreliable Democrats, trading support for some pipeline that’s not in their states and probably not top of their minds was probably an easy thing to do.

CNN reports that a one-page summary of the deal, which it obtained, says the Biden administration and top congressional Democrats will “require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the D.C. Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.” That latter provision is important because right now, the pipeline has been stymied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals; presumably the D.C. Circuit might look more favorably on the pipeline.

Some environmental groups, which have been fighting the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2014, see this as a grievous betrayal. They felt they might have even been on the verge of winning. The pipeline is mostly completed (there’s debate about how much of it is completed; some opponents question the 94% figure the developer cites) but has been stymied by lack of certain permits and a series of unfavorable court rulings. The pipeline operator recently said it would need four more years to finish the project. Opponents have openly hoped the project would simply run out of money. Now this. 

There’s much irony here. Originally, there were two natural gas pipelines proposed to run from nearly the same place in northwestern West Virginia into Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, led by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, was announced first, with much fanfare. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe joined Dominion executives in making the announcement. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You, too, can be a donor and have no say in news decisions.) By contrast, McAuliffe sent out a mere press release to endorse the MVP. Initially, much of the environmental opposition was concentrated on the ACP. When I was with The Roanoke Times, I pointed out that there seemed to be some geographical bias at work: Environmental groups were keen to line up against a pipeline that went near hoity-toity Charlottesville and Albemarle County but seemed a lot less interested in one that went through Southwest Virginia.

Despite that, if you had to bet back in 2014 on which pipeline would get closer to the finish line, you’d have easily bet on the one backed by two major utilities. Instead, Dominion and Duke eventually pulled the plug on the ACP and, in time, more environmental groups rallied to oppose the MVP – although that pipeline never achieved the national notoriety of, say, the Keystone XL Pipeline or the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Now the Mountain Valley Pipeline is finally getting its name mentioned on the national stage, just not in a way that opponents had hoped. There are multiple lessons here, none of which will bring any comfort to opponents.

  1. The political math is not on the side of those who oppose the pipeline.  Democrats could have nominated a presidential candidate in 2020 who was against fracking, the way that most natural gas comes to the surface, but they did not. (It’s also unclear whether such a candidate would have won the presidency.) All we know is that Democrats nominated Biden, who is clearly more open-minded about such things, and even he barely won. He also has terrible poll numbers right now and desperately needs some wins – and, at least from the Democratic point of view, this bill would be a big win. Democrats also don’t have a majority in the Senate. At best they have a 50-50 split. Democrats hate being so dependent on Manchin because he is so far out of the current Democratic mainstream, but this is the price they must pay for not being able to elect Democratic senators in 2020 in North Carolina and Maine. One Republican strategist told The Washington Post: “Manchin holds all the cards here, and this is his ante.” This is as clear an example of political muscle as you’ll see. Manchin had some leverage here and used it. If the alternative is no bill, no one should be surprised that Democratic leaders did what they could to get Manchin on board and agreed to his terms.

  2. Political deals often involve uncomfortable compromises that outrage the purists on either side. On Monday, I wrote about the CHIPS-Plus Act that Congress recently passed, specifically the provision that calls for the federal government to establish at least 20 federal technology hubs around the country that will get showered with federal research dollars. I wrote about how groups in both Southwest and Southside have expressed interest in promoting their regions for one of these hubs and how Southwest, in particular, might have a pretty good chance of winning. I also pointed out the irony of how the U.S. representatives for those two regions – Bob Good for Southside, Morgan Griffith for Southwest – both voted against the bill, even though the communities they represent were making plans to try to benefit from it. Griffith said there were too many unpleasant things in the bill for his taste.

    A few years ago Griffith colorfully described the legislative process this way: “An analogy I like to use for the legislative process invokes candy apples and toads. Legislation rarely includes only things I like – the candy apples – or omits the things I really dislike – the toads. Considering whether to support a bill usually means weighing whether there are enough candy apples to cover up the bad taste of a few toads.” I think the prospect of federal technology hub is a pretty tasty candy apple but Griffith feared too many toads in the mix. Tastes (and pain thresholds) vary.

    Same thing here, just with a different bill and for those on a different part of the political spectrum: The Mountain Valley Pipeline is the toad that Democrats apparently have to eat if they want Machine’s support for the candy apple of that landmark climate bill. (Manchin, and Republicans, don’t see the pipeline as a toad at all, of course. They see it as necessary energy infrastructure, and they see natural gas as a lot cleaner than other fossil fuels, but I’m trying to explain this for Democrats who are aghast at this deal.) In any case, top Democrats here are more eager to cut a deal that involves some toads than Republicans have been. Purists and pragmatists will read very different things into that.

  3. All politics is local, part one. We’ve all heard that. Here’s the obverse: It’s easier to make tough deals involving somebody else’s sacrifice. Would Schumer have been so keen for this deal if the Mountain Valley Pipeline ran through New York? Would Pelosi have gone along if it went through San Francisco? Probably not, right? It’s a lot easier for those at the national level to be more dispassionate about the deal than those who are closer to the actual pipeline. The Washington Post quoted some on the left who seemed OK with the Mountain Valley-Pipeline-for-Manchin’s vote deal. “We must pass the Inflation Reduction Act if we want to get on track to cutting carbon pollution in half by a decade,” said one California-based energy expert. “Without this legislation we don’t have a pathway to get there; with it, we have a fighting chance. There are provisions I don’t agree with, but we have to be clear-eyed: Failure is not an option right now. We have to get climate investments over the finish line.”

    The Post also pointed out that “Democrats’ climate provisions would dwarf the impact of the West Virginia pipeline, in terms of their impact on emissions. The firm Energy Innovation found that greenhouse gas emissions would fall by as much as 41 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 with the bill.” The pipeline might generate carbon emissions at a scale of 26 power plants, but some see that as a necessary tradeoff if they’re going to achieve the larger goal. Others are simply horrified that there’s any concession. I notice that it’s those on the ground who are the loudest in opposition to this deal. “Residents of every Appalachian and environmental justice community deserve to benefit from ambitious and transformative climate policy, and we firmly oppose any approach by Congress that sacrifices frontline communities as part of a political bargain,” said Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator of Appalachian Voices. Just as nobody asked those minor league prospects if they wanted to get traded away, nobody in Washington asked Appalachian Voices if they were OK with this deal – and nobody will.

    4. All politics is local, part two. Now for the more conventional interpretation of this maxim. Some see Manchin as a shill for the fossil fuel industry. There’s a whole internet out there where you can read whatever you like about Manchin, but, whatever his motivations, this pipeline is a much bigger jobs generator in West Virginia than it is in Virginia. In Virginia, it’s basically passing through. Roanoke Gas will buy some of the gas and says that will help lower gas prices in the Roanoke Valley. (Critics dispute this.) McAuliffe backed both pipelines initially because he said manufacturers needed natural gas so if Virginia wanted more manufacturers, then it needed more natural gas pipelines. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in a recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, essentially made the same argument, plus a few more. You can certainly argue there’s some indirect job creation in Virginia out of the pipeline but in West Virginia there’s definite direct job creation out of pumping natural gas out of the ground and sending it on its merry way. It’s also been a job sector that’s been declining. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that gas extraction jobs peaked in West Virginia in August 2014 at 2,822 and last year dipped to 1,890. No one should be surprised that Manchin is trying to cut a deal that would help boost employment in the state he represents. You can make the case that Manchin should be more supportive of renewable energy, and cutting deals to get more solar jobs and more wind jobs in his state instead, but that’s not how he rolls. Again, see point one. Manchin wouldn’t matter so much if the Senate math were different.

This deal isn’t law yet. It needs at least 60 votes in the 50-50 Senate, which means it needs at least 10 Republicans, who might like the provisions to speed up energy projects, but some Democrats might yet defect. (The main bill needed only 51 votes, which is why Manchin’s vote was critical, but this side deal requires 60). We’ll see. One thing is certain: We saw some classic dealing in Washington with the baseball team. We also just saw some with the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...