U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Official portrait.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Official portrait.

How’s this for irony? The biggest obstacles right now to fast-tracking the Mountain Valley Pipeline are Republicans and the biggest proponents are Democrats, one of whom has declared that “climate change is an emergency.”

You’ll recall that back in July, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, shocked both parties when he announced he’d vote for his party’s climate bill – more formally but perhaps inaccurately known as the Inflation Reduction Act. Manchin is a longtime lover of fossil fuels so the notion that he’d back a bill pushed by environmental interests (among others) didn’t seem to quite fit. What we soon learned was that Manchin had traded his vote: He’d voted for the climate bill and in return, top Democrats – including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and apparently even President Joe Biden – agreed to back a Manchin measure to ease permitting for environmental projects. That’s not quite as clear-cut as it may seem: Some on the right see pesky environmental regulations as a problem, but some on the environmental side say we also need faster permitting to be able to build a renewable-friendly grid more quickly. It’s complicated. More relevant to those of us on this side of the state line: Manchin’s permitting bill specifically fast-tracks the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would pump natural gas from northwestern West Virginia to an existing pipeline near Chatham. That pipeline has also been held up by one delay after another, some regulatory, some judicial, and right now has no end in sight.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Courtesy of MVP.

Something, though, still didn’t make sense. How, exactly, was Manchin’s bill going to get through a Congress controlled by Democrats, who generally aren’t keen on the kinds of changes Manchin had in mind? Still, a politician of Manchin’s experience wouldn’t agree to a deal that couldn’t get delivered, right? And if the Senate majority leader gave his word, that’s something that could be counted on, right? And Republicans, being friendly to fossil fuels, would help provide any votes that Manchin lost from more left-leaning Democrats, right? Turns out none of those assumptions are proving true.

July has now turned into November and we’re still waiting for a vote on Manchin’s bill. It’s increasingly looking as if Manchin made a bad deal: He traded his vote for a promise of future action, with no guarantee that it would happen.

Congress, unlike the General Assembly, has lots of ways to get things passed that otherwise wouldn’t have the votes to get passed. The favorite is the device known as the “continuing resolution,” one of those periodic votes to keep the government open. Many of us assumed that Schumer would attach Manchin’s bill to one of those “must pass” bills and opponents wouldn’t have much choice. Indeed, that’s what Manchin tried in September. And it didn’t work. Some Democrats – most notably for our purposes, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia – objected. But so did Republicans, for purely political reasons. In terms of policy, Republicans are far more sympathetic to Manchin’s views on permitting reform and fossil fuels in general. Republicans had a different problem, though: They wanted to punish Manchin for voting for that Inflation Reduction Act.

(We’ll come back to the policy implications of that act, so hang tight.)

The feeling at the time was that Manchin might stand a better chance after the midterms, when political tempers had cooled (if they ever do that kind of thing). “He has at least two more leverage points to get his permitting plan passed this year, and they don’t carry the same urgency as this week’s pre-election deadline,” Politico reported in September. “The first is Congress’ annual defense policy bill, which could come after the election, and the second is December’s lame-duck government spending bill.”

Guess what? Now it looks as if Manchin may not stand much chance with either of those bills, either.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, the top-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said there was “zero chance” Manchin’s bill would get tacked onto the defense bill. Now multiple news organizations that cover Congress – among them The Hill and the Virginia Mercury – are reporting that Manchin may not have any way to get his bill through. The Hill described his measure as being “on life support.”

The reason: Republicans may or may not have gotten over Manchin’s vote for the climate bill but now they see a way to do more than just punish him. They see a way to withhold a major legislative victory from him and perhaps make him vulnerable to a reelection challenge in 2024.

If you think this is cynical – Republicans probably support the essence of his bill much more than Democrats do but are the main ones blocking it – then let me acquaint you with how politics really works. The Hill quoted Republican political strategist Ford O’Connell: “This is an opportunity to actually win his seat in 2024.” Given that opportunity, “it would be political malpractice” to help Manchin get some landmark legislation passed, O’Connell says. The prospect for Republicans is far too tantalizing: West Virginia will go big for the Republican candidate for president in 2024 no matter who that it is; the Mountain State voted 68.6% for Donald Trump in 2020. That means Manchin will be running for reelection on a ticket that includes a candidate sure to lose his state. That would make him vulnerable no matter what, but now Republicans can make his vote for the climate change bill a centerpiece of the campaign: He traded his vote on that bill away for … nothing. Never mind that Republicans are the ones making sure it’s nothing. (Or is it really nothing? Hold that thought.)

In purely procedural terms, Manchin did seem to make a bad bet and Republicans are now keen to make him pay for it. For them, the pro-Republican business interests who see the Mountain Valley Pipeline as a critical piece of infrastructure are just collateral damage. Sorry, pals. The environmental groups who see the pipeline as a grave assault on the environment are suddenly in a position where they are cheering on Republicans – at least for the short term. Yeah, stick it to Manchin. We don’t like him, either.

On the other side is … Biden. E&E News reports that Manchin’s permitting bill is on the president’s legislative wishlist. Now, whether that means anything, who knows? We all have wishlists; we just can’t tell whether this is the top thing on Biden’s list or somewhere much further down. (I’m guessing much further down but have no inside information.) For Biden, any inclusion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline must be simply politics. After all, back in July Biden declared a climate change emergency. He even used the word six times.

The point is: Pipeline opponents who felt they had been double-crossed by Schumer and Biden back in the summer now are probably feeling a lot better about things. The pipeline might still happen – that’s an entirely different matter – but it won’t be because Congress effectively mandated it get approved, thanks to some backroom deal.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline near the Montgomery County-Roanoke County line, as seen from Interstate 81 (during a traffic jam). Photo by Dwayne Yancey

I promised to circle back to the merits of the actual bill, so let’s do that. I wrote more in-depth about the bill in August. The legislation is a lot more complex than either the title or the shorthand description suggest. To some extent, it’s a deficit reduction bill; it allots $300 billion for that purpose. And then it allots $369 billion in various energy investments. Whether all those are wise investments, I cannot say. Given the nature of Congress, some probably aren’t. But some may be. How that trade-off balances out may be largely a matter of political preference. Some, though, clearly seem to benefit coal country. The bill sets aside $4 billion in tax credits for clean energy manufacturers that locate in what are deemed “energy communities” – for our purposes, coal communities. This seems kind of a big deal; the Achilles Heel of the transition away from coal has been to leave these communities bereft, and nobody’s had much of a solution for that other than to say “oh well.” Here’s a chance to jump-start replacement industries in a part of the country that’s starving for new industries. Will this work? No idea, but it’s a lot more than has been done before now, that’s for sure. That’s why this legislation has been called “industrial policy masquerading as energy and climate policy.” Yeah, see my previous column on that, too.

The bill also encourages building up a domestic supply chain for electric vehicles. Feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether electric vehicles will be as big as proponents say they will be, but automakers sure think they will be. They’re all investing in electric vehicle plants of some sort (see my previous column on this) and their actions probably outweigh whatever opinion any of us might have. Whatever size the electric vehicle market winds up being, it seems good for that supply chain to be domestic. This bill helps make that happen. Admittedly, that will likely benefit places with large tracts of flat land – such as the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania – more than mountainous Appalachia, but we have seen at least one electric vehicle battery manufacturer locate in West Virginia. It will employ at least 350 people. That announcement was in the works even before the Inflation Reduction Act so we can’t point to that as a cause and effect. Still, it’s not as if Manchin traded his vote for nothing. The question is whether he traded it for enough.

West Virginia voters may tell us that answer in 2024. We Virginians won’t get a chance to weigh in on that, even though we’ll feel the effects of his decision, one way or another. 

Dwayne Yancey

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