In order to win Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) support for their climate legislation, Democrats are poised to carry out policy changes that might directly help one of the senator’s pet projects, but that activists say could hurt low-income voters and people of color.
On Monday, Manchin revealed the details of a plan to speed up environmental reviews of potentially polluting projects that was part of the deal he made with Democratic leadership.
The deal appears to pertain to both the environmental review process broadly and more immediately to a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia that he has long sought.
“Completing this pipeline will increase supply [and] strengthen American energy security,” Manchin tweeted Tuesday.
But environmental justice advocates, who object to the pipeline’s approval, say that the agreement could undermine the entire review process, subjecting already disadvantaged groups to an even greater share of the country’s pollution burden.
When Manchin announced last week that he would move forward with climate and tax provisions that Democrats have been clamoring for, he said that Democrats would also advance “commonsense permitting reforms” this fall.
The agreement, detailed in a Monday fact sheet, would set time limits for how long environmental reviews can take: two years for major projects and one year for those with less of an impact. It would also require the president to keep a list of 25 energy projects that are prioritized.
And it essentially gives states a one-year time limit to veto infrastructure projects such as pipelines that run through their waters, while clarifying that water quality impacts of the activity itself must be the basis of the review.
The Trump administration had implemented some similar reforms that are now being reversed by the Biden administration.
The fact sheet also said that agencies will be required to allow for the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial vessel that would ship natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia.
Michelle Nowlin, a law professor at Duke University, said she finds the provisions to be “troubling,” particularly those that put “artificial timelines” on the environmental review process.
“That’s certainly a concern, that corners will be cut,” Nowlin said, pointing to communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution.
“There’s a possibility of further concentrating harm in those communities, of disparate impact in those communities and of silencing their voices as they attempt to participate in the process,” she said.
“If you have to expedite this review, how much time is going to actually be spent in the communities hearing and understanding their concerns and following up on them?” she added.
Jamie Pleune, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah, likewise said that a shortened timeline could prevent bad projects from getting the scrutiny that they need.
“When you set a maximum timeline, you’re essentially saying, ‘We will issue the permit at the end of this time,’ but there may be some projects that require additional review,” Pleune said.
Christy Goldfuss, who directed the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration, said that while the changes may not necessarily be what Democrats wanted, they may also bolster clean energy — and will be coupled with additional funding for environmental reviews.
“The reported permitting reform deal serves to put the federal government on a timeline,” she said in a statement. “The reconciliation package also includes funding for agencies to carry out this review. These two pieces combined could have huge impacts on building the clean energy necessary to address climate change, while making sure that the impact on the environment is as minimal as possible.”
Goldfuss added in an interview that the permitting changes are “much more aggressive … than Democrats would have wanted on their own,” but noted that some in the party have also expressed concerns about how long it takes to deploy certain projects.
And supporters of permitting reforms contend that it can be used to help bolster clean energy, too.
“For environmental groups, it’s time for them to reexamine their approach to energy infrastructure,” said Neil Chatterjee, a former Republican commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Chatterjee, who is now a senior adviser at Hogan Lovells, noted that these groups largely support the build-out of clean energy.
“They’re no longer at a point where they need to block the building of energy infrastructure, they want to see it sited,” he said.
Manchin, meanwhile, appeared to be particularly proud of the pipeline piece of the agreement, touting it in a Tuesday interview on local radio.
“There’s not another project in America today that will bring this much energy … that will bring 2 billion cubic feet back into the marketplace,” he said.
Goldfuss, who is now the senior vice president of energy and environment policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that this was an area where Democrats had to cede to Manchin.
“That is just a giant giveaway for the fossil fuel industry that clearly was important to Sen. Manchin,” she said. “This one is just the most egregious of what’s in the two packages combined, from our perspective.”
Green groups oppose the pipeline on environmental grounds, raising concerns about climate change, dependence on fossil fuels and impacts to streams.
Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, also expressed concerns about the proposed new limits to state abilities to nix projects like pipelines.
“The intent seems to be to enshrine the proposal from Trump and industry to avoid consideration of things like climate and harm to endangered aquatic species,” she said. “That’s a huge hit to states’ rights.”
It’s one of several areas where Democrats are giving up ground to Manchin to win his support on a slate of clean energy tax credits and other measures.
The reconciliation package also ties future clean energy leases on public lands and waters to new leases for onshore and offshore drilling. It further mandates that the Interior Department will hold at least a few more lease sales for offshore drilling in the years to come.
Siegel argued that Democrats are having to pay a high price to win Manchin’s approval and should fight against some of it.
“There is real harm that’s going to happen to our most vulnerable communities and to the climate for the concessions that are being made to Manchin to get his vote,” Siegel said.