One of the central provisions in the White House’s deal with Republicans to fund the federal government and avoid a catastrophic default on U.S. debt payments would clear all remaining obstacles to completing a half-built, 303-mile pipeline designed to ship natural gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia to stovetops, power stations and industrial plants up and down the East Coast.
The provision has divided Democrats, including progressives who last year opposed a proposal from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would have given the Mountain Valley Pipeline the go-ahead in exchange for regulatory overhauls meant to make it easier to build renewable energy and the transmission lines to modernize the United States’ crumbling electrical grid.
While supporters from both parties say the pipeline is vital to meet growing U.S. demand for natural gas, the project’s fate until now has hinged on whether Congress would change the law to legalize a precarious route through the Appalachian Mountains that has failed to meet federal safety standards over and over again. Including the pipeline in the budget bill set up a Hobson’s choice for opponents: Either give the project developers blanket approval or suffer a worldwide economic disaster when the federal government runs out of money.
It’s among several conservative political priorities that made it into the final deal, along with putting new restrictions on food stamps and ending the pandemic-era pause on federal student loan repayments that the Democratic Senate and president may not have otherwise supported.
Yet the budget deal abandoned a far less controversial and arguably more urgent effort to boost the construction of new power lines. Transmission projects are almost universally seen as necessary to reduce ballooning blackouts across the U.S. and add more renewables to the grid, but not-in-my-backyard types have even more legal sway over high-voltage lines than pipelines, which enjoy special status under federal law.
Construction began on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in 2018, but federal judges have repeatedly ruled, one as recently as last month, that regulators’ efforts to relax permitting requirements for the conduit from Wetzel County in northwestern West Virginia to a Pittsylvania County compressor station in southeastern Virginia violated the law.
After five years of legal wrangling, the project, which was originally supposed to take a little over a year and cost about $3 billion, remains incomplete, and the price tag has more than doubled.
The gas drilled, shipped and burned through the pipeline would generate almost 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gas each year, according to an estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council, equal to the emissions from 23 average U.S. coal plants or more than 19 million passenger vehicles driven every year, assuming the plants igniting the gas are never equipped with technology to capture carbon dioxide in the smokestacks.
In the text of the budget bill the Republican-controlled House of Representatives released Sunday, Congress “ratifies and approves all authorizations, permits, verifications, extensions, biological opinions, incidental take statements, and any other approvals or orders” issued under federal law to complete construction and operation the Mountain Valley Pipeline at full capacity.
The legislation orders the U.S. Army and federal agencies to grant any outstanding approvals within 21 days of the budget passing and bars federal courts from reviewing any of those permits.
Aside from some modest reforms to the environmental review process for federal permitting and a study to assess the merits of building more transmission lines to link more of the U.S. grid system that could take more than a year to complete, the debt ceiling agreement contains none of the crucial provisions for transmission lines proposed last year to sweeten the deal for Democrats who opposed the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
‘MVP Is Not A Normal Pipeline Project’
As of May 2023, roughly 94% of the cylindrical, green-painted piping – 3 and half feet in diameter – is already laid. But counting the restoration work required after years of delay, the developers told federal regulators in a filing that less than 56% of the pipeline’s construction was finished.
Opponents of the project include environmentalists, who say the project guarantees increased use of a fossil fuel that the planet’s atmosphere can ill afford.
Compared to coal, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas destabilizing global weather patterns. But while methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time than carbon dioxide, it traps more than 80 times more heat during the first two decades it’s circulating in the sky, threatening to accelerate polar melting and render global warming uncontrollable.
If the Mountain Valley Pipeline shuts down early, or future policies curb the use of natural gas before its shipments can pay off the construction costs, critics say the project could ultimately put the U.S. financial system at risk by becoming part of a wave of worthless assets.
“It is irresponsible to use the nation’s debt obligations as leverage to grease the skids for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a failed fossil-fuel project that has consistently been unable to comply with environmental laws,” Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “MVP has already put communities at risk and would lock in the South’s dependence on fossil fuels for decades, derailing climate goals and progress expected as a result of recent legislative wins.”
The pipeline requires a minimum of 50 feet of clearance on either side of the route — 125 feet during the construction process — and some property owners have refused to sell their land, fearing that the project would risk polluting their water and air. The pipeline also traverses a uniquely dangerous route, crossing more miles of terrain considered at high risk for landslides than any other pipeline federal regulators have approved since 1997, according to Jacob Hileman, a U.S.-trained environmental hydrologist and researcher with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science at Uppsala University in Sweden.
“MVP is not a normal pipeline project, but a frightening harbinger of a new class of unconscionably high-risk pipelines,” Hileman wrote in a 2019 op-ed for the news site Virginia Mercury. “Given landslides will remain an existential threat along the MVP right-of-way for decades to come, it is imperative Virginia regulators immediately issue a statewide Stop Work Order.”
Supporters of the project say stopping the construction of gas pipelines has done little to curb appetites for more natural gas, particularly as more weather-dependent solar and wind farms come online, requiring more gas-fired power plants to provide backup when photovoltaic panels idle in darkness and turbine blades go still. States like New York and Massachusetts blocked new gas pipelines on climate grounds, but have continued using more of the fuel, driving up electricity rates to some of the highest prices in the nation.
U.S. production of natural gas shows no signs of slowing down, particularly as the country ramps up sales to allies overseas. Exports of liquefied natural gas — a version of the fuel that is super-chilled to make transportation easier — increased by 9% last year compared to 2021. Much of it went to Europe, with exports skyrocketing 141% as countries scrambled to quit importing gas from Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. Gas shipments to Asia fell in 2022 but the Biden administration greenlit a pipeline and liquefaction project on the Alaskan coast last month designed to send more U.S. gas across the Pacific.
While some Republicans complained that the budget deal could have extracted more dramatic concessions and spending cuts from the Biden administration, Democrats balked at numerous provisions in the legislation, not least of which was the pipeline.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Tuesday that progressives have “serious concerns” with the environmental justice implications of the debt deal, and they include “the wholesale green-lighting” of the Mountain Valley Pipeline without judicial review. She pointed to a Monday statement by CPC member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to sum up progressives’ concerns.
“Mandating approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is a disturbing and profoundly disappointing addition to this bill,” Grijalva, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in his statement. “Condemning Appalachian communities to generations of pollution and pain is a legacy that no one should be forced to vote for.”
On Tuesday, the six Democrats in Virginia’s 11-member U.S. House delegation introduced an amendment to the spending bill to strip out the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permitting provision.
Blaming the developers for “over 450 documented water quality-related violations,” the lawmakers said the agreement between the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is “a free pass for the pipeline and sidesteps our nation’s environmental laws and judicial review processes” that “undermines our efforts to accelerate the deployment of clean-energy technologies and curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who vowed last year to fight the pipeline on behalf of Virginia landowners’ property rights, said in a statement Monday that he planned to propose a similar amendment slashing the pipeline measures from the Senate version of the budget bill.
But a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told the Virginia outlet Cardinal News: “While Senator Warner opposes the inclusion of language pertaining to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, he does not support defaulting on our nation’s debt. He plans to vote for the bill.”
EQM Midstream Partners, the Pittsburgh-based developer that would operate the pipeline, said in an email it was “grateful for the full support of the White House, as well as the strong leadership of Democratic and Republican legislators for recognizing the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) as a critical energy infrastructure project.”
EQM will co-own the pipeline as a joint venture with the developers WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream, and the utilities NextEra and ConEdison. None of the other companies responded to JS’s requests for comment on Tuesday.
Unlike Last Year’s ‘Dirty Deal,’ This One Doesn’t Boost Power Lines
Manchin initially pitched the blanket approvals for the pipeline as the price for his pivotal vote on last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. With Manchin on board, the Democratic majorities of both chambers of Congress were able to pass the president’s landmark climate-spending law through the same budget process being used today without a single Republican vote.
Shortly after the IRA passed, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced a deal with Manchin to speed up environmental reviews of energy projects by streamlining permitting rules and setting legally enforceable deadlines for federal agencies. It would have cleared the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline while also beefing up federal regulators’ authority to site and permit transmission lines.
Progressives and environmentalists who held their noses to vote for the IRA, which fell far short of the $1 trillion per year left-leaning Democrats wanted the bill to spend, quickly rallied after the law’s passage to fight against what they called “Manchin’s dirty deal.” Chief among their critiques was the inclusion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Some argued that overhauling the federal environmental permitting process was just a stalking horse for relaxing regulations on oil and gas drillers and that bottlenecks in building clean energy projects required more staffing at regulatory agencies, not cuts to the process itself.
But renewable energy companies said permitting changes were long overdue and described Manchin’s proposal last year as “common-sense reforms” needed to “help us unleash the full potential of the clean energy investments spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act and keep us within striking distance of the emissions reduction targets and climate goals we need to achieve.”
“In 2022, it would have been great to have a permitting proposal that progressives really wanted. But we weren’t going to come up with that in two days, at least not one that’s accountable to the communities we represent.”
– Kaniel Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network
“We can’t afford to let our unnecessarily burdensome permitting process derail the promise of a clean energy future,” Heather Zichal, chief executive of the trade group American Clean Power Association, said in a statement in September. “Congress should finish the job and pass these critical bipartisan reforms.”
Progressive groups were caught off-guard by the swift proposal of the permitting reform plan last fall and had no constructive alternative to offer, and little time to consult the groups they represent, said Kaniel Ing, the national director of the Green New Deal Network.
“If we don’t like Manchin’s dirty deal, what does a progressive permitting vision really look like?” Ing, a former U.S. House candidate in Hawaii, said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “Just saying no to everything isn’t going to work.”
“I represent people on the ground that are dying from pollution, dying from fossil fuels, that are getting squeezed economically by bills like this, and my whole goal is to make sure they have a voice,” he said of the new debt deal. “In 2022, it would have been great to have a permitting proposal that progressives really wanted. But we weren’t going to come up with that in two days, at least not one that’s accountable to the communities we represent.”
While progressives fought the so-called “dirty deal,” so did Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) organized Republicans to withhold support in the hopes that the next Congress would give the GOP an opportunity to push for a more right-wing deal. The White House blamed “misguided” Republicans for blocking the proposal last fall.
The debt deal House Republicans brokered last week with the White House delivers the pipeline without making it easier to build transmission lines, so the GOP strategy appears to have worked.
In the meantime, progressives came up with a bill they support, a proposal from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to speed up permitting for transmission lines. Manchin, meanwhile, took the portions of his permitting bill that would make it easier to build transmission lines and put those forward in a standalone piece of legislation.
But even in Democrat-controlled states that claim decarbonizing the grid as a top priority, other factors — including local NIMBYism — have stepped in the way of transmission lines as standalone projects.
In November 2021, voters in Maine approved a referendum to block the construction of a power line to carry electricity from Québec’s carbon-free hydroelectric dams into New England, handing a victory to fossil fuel companies who opposed the competition and environmentalists who lamented the trees that would be cut down to build the line. Last April, New York regulators greenlit a similar line into energy-starved New York City against the opposition of environmental groups who criticized the project as “blood energy” because of Québec’s history of seizing land from Indigenous people decades ago.
“It sure would have been great for transmission” if Manchin’s initial permitting reform had passed, said Rob Gramlich, president of the consultancy Grid Strategies LLC. “There were members on both sides of the aisle who were interested but not sufficiently informed about the topic.”
Asked whether it was the wrong move to oppose the Mountain Valley Pipeline last year when its approval could have come in exchange for transmission reforms, Gramlich sighed.
“It’s a bit of 20/20 hindsight,” he said.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.