What is your personal Mountain Valley Pipeline? What would it be like to force your co-workers to pretend it’s a good idea?
Can you imagine what it must be like to be Joe Manchin? Seriously, picture it for a second. Imagine anytime your co-workers were on deadline to deliver a project, you could just toss in a line funding your pet obsession: if TNR’s editorial team were about to launch an expanded Supreme Court desk, for instance, and I said, “Welp, in exchange for my very titular support for this project, you must also fund my plan to plant Charentais melons around the Washington Monument.”
Now imagine that instead of saying, “Absolutely not, what are you smoking, this has nothing to do with fruit,” my bosses and colleagues stared at me blankly for a few seconds, said, “OK, we can work with that,” and issued a press release announcing their support for small-scale heirloom melon agriculture in downtown D.C.
This is pretty much how things have been playing out over the past year with Joe Manchin and the Mountain Valley Pipeline—the cursed imbroglio that has now made it into this week’s debt ceiling deal.
The melon seeds of this week’s news were sown last summer, when the West Virginia “Democrat” finally agreed to provide his vote for Democrats’ flagship piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. For his support, Manchin secured a promise from Democrats not just to speed up federal permitting in general but specifically to “require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the DC Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.”
The follow-up to this came in September, when Manchin introduced his Energy Independence and Security Act, a bill purportedly to reform the U.S. permitting system for energy infrastructure but especially to issue any new permits the Mountain Valley Pipeline might need, and which had been repeatedly blocked by the Fourth Circuit over environmental concerns, including the pipeline’s threat to at-risk species.
The White House duly issued its statement of support, despite 70 House Democrats pointing out that gutting the National Environmental Policy Act to please Manchin was maybe not the best idea, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tried unsuccessfully to get it into September’s continuing resolution to keep the government funded. When that failed, he attempted in December to attach the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act—with Biden’s blessing—before giving up on that plan as well.
Imagine how frustrated you’d be if you were Manchin at this point. After all, you provided a crucial swing vote on a piece of legislation that could save households thousands of dollars and help cut the emissions contributing to an existential crisis on Planet Earth, and your co-workers still haven’t delivered on their promise to ram through your ill-conceived, ill-executed little scheme that undermines that entire effort.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is, to use the technical term for something that would comprehensively flunk any rational utilitarian analysis, a bad project. The idea is to run a pipeline over 300 miles from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia, perhaps even including an extension into North Carolina, and fill it with fracked gas, which we now know is fueling a spike in global methane emissions, warming the planet at a much faster rate than earlier projections.
It’s been unclear from the get-go what demand this pipeline will allegedly be meeting, given that the region already gets gas from the existing “Transco” pipeline system. But Manchin likes the MVP, presumably, because it’s in his state and theoretically promises jobs and economic development to communities in dire need of them. He has repeatedly asserted that the MVP somehow enhances the country’s energy security. (He might also just like it because he gets a bonkers amount of money from the fossil fuel industry, but hey, let’s not be cynical.)
If the MVP is like other pipeline projects, the actual benefit to local communities is wildly inflated. But given what’s being promised, it’s impressive how much local opposition the pipeline has provoked, from environmental activists to landowners concerned about accidents and irritated about the seizure of their property via eminent domain.
It’s not just the pipeline’s projected emissions—equal to those of 26 coal plants—that have raised eyebrows, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff pointed out last year. Since 2018, the project has racked up hundreds of water quality violations. And as Inside Climate News reported last fall, there’s a particular concern about the safety and stability of pipeline sections that have been left outside for long periods of time. In April, the Fourth Circuit took a look at the pipeline’s copious water violations and ruled that West Virginia had “failed to provide a reasoned explanation as to why it believes MVP’s past permit violations will not continue to occur going forward.” Last week, the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission needs to either prepare a report on the MVP’s possible effects on erosion and sedimentation or explain why it hasn’t.
In short, there are a lot of reasons to let this questionable project die. And really, it would be sensible at this point for Schumer and Biden, after multiple attempts to honor last summer’s deal with Manchin, to mothball the thing. Instead, the long-awaited bill text to avoid a default on U.S. debt gets released, and what do we see? Round Three of “let’s try to insert special treatment for this bogus piece of mega-plumbing into must-pass legislation.”
Although Virginia Senator Tim Kaine immediately announced his intention to haul the MVP expedited approval back out of the bill text, on the grounds of it being “completely unrelated to the debt ceiling matter,” the Senate rejected his amendment late Thursday and passed the bill with the MVP provision intact.* Manchin, meanwhile, issued a statement early this week saying, “I am proud to have fought for this critical project and to have secured the bipartisan support necessary to get it across the finish line.”
And hey, why wouldn’t he be proud of himself? If you had managed to send your co-workers on a nine-month masochistic mission to insert your personal idée fixe into every big-ticket item that crossed their desks, wouldn’t you be pleased? Wouldn’t you be drunk on cantaloupes and power? Truly: What must it be like to be Joe Manchin?