The Washington Post

Manchin-schumer side deal would overhaul energy project approval

- BY JEFF STEIN AND TONY ROMM

A side agreement reached between Democratic leadership and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.) as part of a broader deal on an economic package would overhaul the nation’s process for approving new energy projects, including by expediting a gas pipeline proposed for West Virginia, according to a one-page summary obtained by The Washington Post.

To win Manchin’s support for the climate, energy and healthcare package that was etched last week, Democratic leaders agreed to attempt to advance separate legislatio­n on expediting energy projects. These changes would fall outside the bounds of the Senate budget procedure the party is using to pass its budget bill, making it impossible for Democrats to approve that with just 51 votes. The new agreement would require 60 votes to be approved and would need GOP support to be signed into law. Republican­s have supported similar measures in the past, but the agreement could face defections from liberal Democrats, who have warned against making it easier to open new oil and gas projects.

The 100-seat Senate is now evenly split between Democrats and Republican­s, but Vice President Harris can cast a tiebreakin­g vote.

The side deal would set new two-year limits, or maximum timelines, for environmen­tal reviews for “major” projects, the summary says. It would also aim to streamline the government processes for deciding approvals for energy projects by centralizi­ng decision-making with one lead agency, the summary adds. The bill would also attempt to clear the way for the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport Appalachia­n shale gas about 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia. This pipeline is a key priority of Manchin’s.

Other provisions would limit legal challenges to energy projects and give the Energy Department more authority to approve electric transmissi­on lines that are deemed to be “in the national interest,” according to the document. One provision could make it harder for government agencies to deny new approvals based on certain environmen­tal impacts that are not directly caused by the project, said Sean Marotta, a partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm who represents pipeline companies.

“This is a pretty vague outline, but if you had this kind of efficient streamlini­ng it could lead to the necessary build-out of energy infrastruc­ture not just for fossil fuels but for all types of energy that are necessary for reliabilit­y and decarboniz­ation,” said Neil Chatterjee, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Still, the agreement poses new challenges for Democratic lawmakers who are weighing these permitting changes as the necessary price to pay to secure Manchin’s support for hundreds of billions in new clean energy investment­s. Climate groups have largely said that trade is worthwhile, because Manchin’s vote on the broader package will unlock longsought subsidies and tax credits for solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. But many Democrats have been wary. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D- Ore.) said previously: “I really want to see all the details on the permitting. We all knew that any deal that would be struck between Schumer and Manchin would have a lot of fossil fuels in it. The question is on balance.”

The agreement appears to have been the only way to secure Manchin’s vote for the broader climate deal. Manchin had voiced concerns about approving hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies for energy projects that could be defeated by red tape or climate lawsuits, and said the United States must do much more to avoid its dependence on authoritar­ian petrostate­s.

“Manchin holds all the cards here, and this is his ante,” said Liam Donovan, a GOP political strategist. “Democrats can only do so much under the reconcilia­tion rules, so they inevitably have to look beyond the scope of the bill to seal the deal.”

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.

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