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

Boom. Just like that, we have a new national drama, this one playing out in our own backyard.

You’ll recall that back in August, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, surprised both parties. He agreed to vote for the Democrats’ so-called climate bill – officially styled the Inflation Reduction Act – in return for the Democratic leadership agreeing to a separate provision he’s pushing to speed up the permitting process for energy projects. Of particular interest to us, one of the projects specifically mentioned is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the 303-mile natural gas pipeline from northwestern West Virginia to Chatham, a project that’s currently ensnared in various legal delays and a project in which Manchin has a keen interest. Most of that natural gas may simply pass through Virginia but the extraction of it produces jobs in his state.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Courtesy of MVP.

I wrote then that it was unclear just how this Manchin provision would actually get enacted since it seemed unlikely that the Democratic-controlled House would ever go along with something that would enable the pipeline’s construction. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said then that “I’ve heard there may be an effort to do this not by standalone legislation but instead just include it in the year-end continuing resolution or appropriations bill.” 

Kaine’s political instincts have turned out to be quite sound.

Late Wednesday, Manchin dropped a 91-page bill on “permitting reform,” part of which requires the federal government “to take all necessary actions to permit the timely completion of the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline without further administrative or judicial delay or impediment.” And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the measure would be included in a spending bill that Congress must pass by the end of next week to avoid a government shutdown – aka, a continuing resolution.

That brings us to the drama part – because there is now opposition to this plan from both parties, for different reasons. A Washington Post headline on Thursday: “Manchin’s permitting bill sets up dramatic clash over government funding.

All this over something here in our sometimes-overlooked part of Virginia.

I am reminded of what Shakespeare’s Malvolio declaimed in “Twelfth Night”: “Some are born great. Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” The Mountain Valley Pipeline was a pipeline of only regional interest until Manchin cut his deal with Schumer, then it suddenly became a national issue. It has now had greatness – or at least great magnitude – thrust upon it.

Before we delve deeper into the politics, let me say two things.

First, my focus today is strictly on the politics of the pipeline, not whether the pipeline is either a) much-needed infrastructure or b) an assault on the environment. All that is well-debated elsewhere.

Second, none of these political shenanigans would be happening if Washington operated the way Richmond does. In Richmond, bills move through the legislature in a more or less logical way. In Richmond, if Manchin wanted this bill passed, he’d have to introduce it by a certain deadline, and it would first go to a committee, maybe even a subcommittee. It would get voted on there and, if it passed, would get voted on by the full chamber. It would get debated and examined all along the way. That’s not how Congress works, though. Here Manchin magically produces a bill and his party leader unilaterally intends to attach it to a must-pass continuing resolution. Of course, in Richmond, there are no continuing resolutions; there’s an actual two-year state budget that itself moved through the committee process. Not everything in Richmond happens out in the open – that’s why you should support having journalists there to sniff things out – but Washington makes Richmond look like a model of transparency. That’s not taking a position on whether Manchin’s bill is good or bad, just a belief that measures ought to get voted on one by one, not lumped together in some giant catch-all. My ranting, though, won’t change the way Washington works, so let me get down off my soapbox and move on to look at how it is working.

The whole purpose of putting Manchin’s bill in a continuing resolution is that it’s a way to get things passed that otherwise might not get passed. Who’s willing to shut down the federal government over a single pipeline in Appalachia?

That’s where things get interesting.

Schumer’s likely obligated to try to get Manchin’s bill into the continuing resolution. After all, he was part of the deal that secured Manchin’s vote for the climate bill and you don’t get to be – or get to stay as – party leader if you don’t keep your word. But other Democrats feel no such obligation.

Kaine has made it clear he isn’t happy with Manchin’s bill. He put out a statement about it Wednesday evening, reiterated his comments in a conference call with journalists Thursday, then took to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon.

Kaine said he could support much of Manchin’s 24-part bill. It’s not how he would do permitting reform, but he could live with it. “The first 23 sections of the bill – 86 pages of a 91-page bill – have a lot of things I could support,” he said. It’s that 24th section that mandates the Mountain Valley Pipeline that he objects to. “In fact, I strongly oppose it,” he told journalists.

Manchin’s proposal would declare that the actions of the Secretary of the Interior and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission related to the pipeline “shall not be subject to judicial review” and if there are any lawsuits related to the pipeline, they should be handled in the D.C. Court of Appeals, not the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the pipeline hasn’t fared well so far. Kaine called this “unprecedented” and warned that it opens the door to future corruption: If a company doesn’t like the outcome of a court case, it simply persuades Congress to dictate a different outcome. Energy and Environment News says Manchin’s move to exempt the MVP might not be quite so unprecedented, but it’s certainly rare: “Such measures were passed for the Trans-Alaska pipeline and to allow construction of some facilities for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City,” the website reports. There may be some technical differences here: My research suggests the exemption for those two projects was passed before construction began. Here’s a case where the pipeline is under construction but that construction has been stalled by court rulings. Changing the rules in the middle of the game, as it were, may well be unprecedented.

Still, if Manchin succeeds in getting this provision in the continuing resolution, does Kaine’s objection matter? “We’re not going to shut down government over a pipeline project,” Kaine said. “The White House won’t allow it. Sen. Schumer won’t allow it. Speaker Pelosi won’t allow it.”

So the question is, will it be included? I have no inside information but it’s clear that this won’t end quietly, however it ends. Politico and The Washington Post report that Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, has been leading an effort to force a separate vote on Manchin’s bill. So far, at least four other senators have signed on: Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois; Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. Did I call this or what? Back in August I wrote: “In other words, are liberal senators such as Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, both of whom ran for president against fracking (the process that brings most natural gas to the surface), really going to vote for something that speeds up a pipeline?”

The New York Times laid out the significance of this opposition. Even if just Sanders opposed the measure, then “at least 11 Republicans would need to back it in the 50-50 Senate to scale the 60-vote threshold to move it past a filibuster if the rest of the Democratic caucus backs it.” Even if just the five Democrats above opposed the measure, then you’d need 16 Republicans to back Manchin’s proposal.

That should be easy, right? After all, Republicans are a lot more friendly to fossil fuels than Democrats are. Ah, not so fast.

Republicans are backing a different permit reform bill – this one introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia. It also greenlights the Mountain Valley Pipeline and exempts the project from judicial review. A Republican-led permitting bill would seem to have no hope of getting through a deadlocked U.S. Senate and a Democratic House of Representatives. But that’s not the point. The point is Republicans have their own bill, and, more importantly, aren’t happy with Manchin. Democrats are usually unhappy with Manchin because he doesn’t vote with them as much as they think he should, but now Republicans are unhappy with Manchin because he voted for that climate bill. He’s managed the rare feat of upsetting both sides. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor Wednesday to goad Manchin: “If our colleague across the aisle wants real permitting reform, Sen. Capito’s fantastic bill only needs Sen. Manchin plus nine more Democrats to clear this chamber. Otherwise it would appear the senior senator from West Virginia traded his vote on a massive liberal boondoggle in exchange for nothing.”

Sen. Joe Barrasso, R-Wyoming, was more blunt. “We have Joe Manchin, who is trying to hide behind a fig leaf of an agreement he made with Chuck Schumer about trying to cut a little bit of that red tape,” he said. “If you’re now looking for Republicans to support and give you more cover than you have right now you’re not going to find it with us.”

Would Republicans really sabotage something they believe in – making it easier to build energy projects in general and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in particular – just to get back at Manchin? Do bears do their business in the woods? Of course they would. That’s how Washington works. Maybe it shouldn’t work that way but it does. Manchin certainly thinks Republicans would refuse to help him out. “It’s revenge toward one person – me,” he said earlier this week.

That drew a Twitter rebuke from Sanders. “No,” Sanders tweeted. “Defeating the Big Oil side is not about revenge. It’s about whether we will stand with 650 environmental and civil rights organizations who understand that the future of the planet is with renewable energy and energy efficiency not approving the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” Well, Sanders may be trying to stick it to Big Oil, but Republicans might like to stick it to Manchin.

“I’ve never seen stranger bedfellows than Bernie Sanders and the extreme liberals siding with Republican leadership,” Manchin said.

So how is all this going to play out? Who knows? Getting his measure through the Senate isn’t Manchin’s only challenge. He’ll also have to get it through the House – where the Democrats tend to be more liberal, and nearly 80 of them have also indicated they’ll oppose including his provisions in the continuing resolution. And it may not just be Democrats who oppose what Manchin is trying to do. Some Republicans may simply agree with Kaine: Congress shouldn’t be voting to put something beyond the law. “You can’t just come in and run roughshod because you want this particular pipeline,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, told The Roanoke Times. “You shouldn’t be changing the rules midstream.”

As if that’s not complicated enough, there are, yes, more complications – fascinating complications from the standpoint of a journalist watching all this play out but frustrating ones for those opposed to the pipeline. Some “climate hawks,” as they’re being called – in this case the hawks are on the left and the presumed doves are on the right – think Manchin’s bill is actually pretty good. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has been telling anyone who will listen that they should read a recent article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “Manchin’s New Bill Could Lead to One Big Climate Win.” (For those not in the know, The Atlantic is not the kind of publication normally found on the reading lists of fossil fuel-friendly conservatives.) That article, by the author of a weekly environmental newsletter, says that if we really want to de-carbonize the economy, then we need to double our construction of new power lines. And Manchin’s permitting reform bill will help make that possible, Robinson Meyer writes. Manchin’s proposal “will likely make it easier, faster, and cheaper for the country to build the kind of major new transmission lines that climate change requires. Yet these measures will come at a cost for environmentalists: The bill may authorize some fossil-fuel projects, and it may make it harder for green groups to block new infrastructure projects in court. The trade-offs may be dicey for climate advocates to accept, but its transmission components, considered alone, could very well amount to a win for the climate.” That’s certainly not what pipeline opponents want to hear.

For those interested in why transmission lines are critical to renewables, here’s why: “Although the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow all the time, one of the two is usually happening somewhere in the country. The U.S. has unusually well-balanced renewable potential, in fact: In the West, wind and solar generate huge amounts of electricity during the summer, while midwestern wind goes gangbusters in the winter … The only way to tap into America’s renewable potential is by moving electricity across large parts of the country.”

Sanders tweets: “The Mountain Valley Pipeline would generate emissions equivalent to 37 coal plants or putting 27 million more cars on the road. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone concerned about climate change would consider voting to approve such a dirty & dangerous fracked gas pipeline.” The author of The Weekly Planet says that might be the necessary political tradeoff to be able to move all that renewable energy around the country.

So here’s where we stand: Did Schumer and Manchin (and Pelosi) originally make a deal they can’t deliver on? Did Manchin effectively trade his vote for the climate bill for something he can’t get? Will this debate over the Mountain Valley Pipeline lead to a government shutdown? Or will Manchin and others figure out a way to achieve through a political deal what they’ve been unable to achieve through the current permitting process (and the court system)?

Stay tuned.

Dwayne Yancey

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