Among the items on Congress’ long to-do list through the end of the year is a proposal by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin to speed up the federal government’s permitting process, which certifies that energy projects do not harm the environment.
But the bill, which was a condition of the centrist Democrat from West Virginia’s support for his party’s larger climate, health care and tax measures earlier this year, may still lack the support needed to pass, with progressive Democrats worried about the impact on environmental protections environment.
Failure to pass the bill this year would be a disappointment to Manchin and his allies in the oil, gas and coal sectors, who have pushed for years to loosen federal permitting requirements. Some renewable energy advocates also say federal permitting must be reformed for wind and solar technologies to reach their highest potential.
But it would be welcome news to environmentalists, who say the bill will weaken a core environmental law that protects communities from pollution while providing little new renewable energy capacity.
Congress is expected to be in session for most of December before adjourning in January and splitting the government as Republicans take over the House with a narrow majority.
“It’s a pretty tight calendar and they have a lot to do,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that opposes Manchin’s proposal, speaking about the congressional session.
“So you spend a lot of time on legislation that is very deeply divisive?”
Environmental justice concerns
Environmental groups, including those in the environmental justice movement, which seeks to free marginalized communities from exposure to pollution, opposed the bill from the start.
The measure would limit deadlines for environmental reviews and limit communities’ ability to challenge the agency’s decisions in court.
“Sen. Manchin’s legislation heralds the continued silencing of environmental justice communities in the permitting process while eviscerating due process rights in court should they feel it necessary to protect their communities from harm,” 70 environmental organizations said in a Nov. 15 letter. to President Joe Biden.
The letter was sent out Monday by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a progressive Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and has vocally opposed Manchin’s bill.
Manchin’s bill targets requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, that require environmental assessments of major projects to be completed within two years and all others to be completed within one year.
Those time limits don’t actually weaken the law’s requirements, but an artificial timeline without additional resources to complete reviews could lead to agencies cutting back, said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the conservation group Center on Western Priorities.
“And when agencies limit NEPA assessments, they’re tied up in court for years,” Weiss said. “So the irony of at least the last Manchin proposal we’ve seen is that it didn’t seem like it would actually do much to streamline NEPA reviews, and if anything, it might fail.”
The main issue in Manchin’s bill is its provision to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a gas pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said earlier this year that he opposed the bill because of the section. The pipeline would have to pass standard environmental checks, he said.
The enabling bill was part of a deal Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Manchin to secure support for Democrats’ flagship climate, health care and tax bill, which provided $370 billion in clean energy spending.
Schumer said at the time that he didn’t like the idea of weakening environmental laws, but it was a necessary concession for Manchin to pass the bigger bill. He also said the reforms could speed up clean energy projects.
“As far as pass reform goes, I didn’t like it, but it was something that Senator Manchin wanted,” he said at a news conference immediately after the Senate passed the inflation-reduction bill in August. “We’ve modified it some, and it actually has some very good things for the environment. It will facilitate clean energy permitting.”
But that argument hasn’t quite caught on, as environmentalists oppose repealing longstanding federal protections to allow changes that would help both clean energy and fossil fuel production.
“It’s pretty naive to think that if we gut NEPA, somehow renewable energy would be the bigger winner,” said Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“I think [renewable energy] transmission is important,” said Lisa Frank, executive director of the Washington office of environmental group Environment America. “But we don’t see it as this moment where we have to get something done by December or the clean energy future will be destroyed.”
Prospects for this year
There are indications that Manchin and Schumer are continuing to work to appease the bill’s opponents and pass it this year, likely as an attachment to either a government funding bill or an annual defense authorization.
The White House is supportive. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during the daily White House briefing on Nov. 10 that the defense bill should include Manchin’s authorization proposal.
But the enabling bill remains without critical support in Washington.
“As you saw when we tried this last time, there weren’t enough Republican votes,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “I’m working with Senator Manchin to see what we can do.
Despite Schumer’s blessing, rank-and-file Democrats, especially on the House side, have mostly not supported him.
Progressives have well-documented concerns about the bill. Neither progressives nor Republicans have indicated they will change their positions. In Monday’s letter, Grijalva reaffirmed his opposition.
In theory, Republicans should favor a proposal to streamline federal permits. Some Republicans have railed for years about red tape that slows down and increases the cost of building infrastructure.
A more decisive Republican victory in the midterms could bring Democrats and environmental groups back to the negotiating table this year to try to strike a deal — especially on clean energy transmission — before a less environmentally conscious GOP takes over in January. Hartl said.
But with a slim, single-digit majority in the House, Republican leader and presumptive next House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may not be able to move votes to pass the bill, and progressives seem more willing to take a chance.
“The likelihood of Republican dysfunction and inability to function is extremely high in the next Congress,” Hartl said.
Still, Manchin and Schumer have managed to surprise before. Most recently, Manchin insisted this summer that he was still working on a climate bill he could support, even as his colleagues in Congress and many other observers blamed his ambivalence for limiting the chances of any climate legislation.
He and Schumer emerged within weeks with a big account deal.
A person close to Manchin said in late November that the senator “continues to look for ways to get this passed by the end of the year.”
But with a busy agenda — funding the government, approving annual military spending, possibly raising the debt ceiling and passing a bill to clarify how the Electoral College works — Democrats may prefer to stick to their points of agreement, Hartl said.