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The two Joes and what they mean for US climate policy

By Joel B. Stronberg

May 25 2023 · 18 min read

Illuminem Voices
Climate Change · Public Governance · Environmental Sustainability

Who's who?

At least one-half of last year’s Washington power couple — Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) — has taken to holding hostage the other Joe’s climate plans and promises.

Manchin has vowed to stonewall President Biden’s nominees for executive positions at the Environmental Protection Agency as well as having issued not so veiled threats to vote with Senate and House Republicans on the matters of the national debt and the whittling down of the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) climate-related provisions.

The Mountain State senator again has it in his head to bring the Biden administration and progressives to heel over a variety of climate and energy-related programs and policies — not the least of these being a makeover of the federal energy project permitting process. It is even reported that Manchin’s proposed permitting bill will be woven into the budget deal. However, that may be a bridge too far sort of prediction.

The proposals

Manchin’s Building American Energy Security Act is similar to the one he introduced in the 117th Congress following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Many on Capitol Hill — both Republican and Democrat — believe the nation’s long overdue for a streamlined approval process for energy projects. Support for changes to the permitting process — including the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) — comes from multiple quarters.

Understandably, there are significant differences between what the climate community and the fossil fuel industry believe is good policy. Senator Angus King (I-ME) explains that “any permitting legislation needs to include deadlines for reviewing proposed projects, limits on how long litigation can take, and one-stop shopping for agency reviews.” King has also said —

“In order to achieve our environmental goals, we have to build things. You cannot love EVs and hate lithium mines.”

House Speaker McCarthy (R-CA) has indicated that Republican conditions for lifting the borrowing cap include clean energy spending cuts and a permitting overhaul prioritizing fossil fuel development.

The point here isn’t about the final terms and conditions of any permitting reforms. It is that there appears to be bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for some type of permitting reform.

President Biden has been demanding a “clean” debt ceiling deal. Although he, too, has indicated support for permitting reforms. According to John Podesta, a senior White House clean energy advisor —

“The president doesn’t love everything in the [Manchin] bill, but we support it.”

The administration’s priorities for permitting reform are posted on the White House Briefing Room. They include:

  • Accelerating deployment of critical electric transmission;
  • Accelerating energy project permitting on federal lands;
  • Modernizing America’s 150-year-old mining laws and the responsible development of domestically available critical minerals and metals; and
  • Incentivizing the redevelopment of clean energy facilities on formerly contaminated and old mining sites and closed landfills and reducing threats presented at those sites that can meaningfully contribute to clean energy production while also creating jobs and improving environmental conditions for nearby communities.

Clearly, there are conflicts between the various parties’ concepts of what “streamlining” the energy project permitting process should entail.

What the climate community thinks

Hardly silent in all of this is the climate community. A letter, signed by nearly 300 environmental organizations, was sent to Biden and Democratic congressional leaders urging them to reject Manchin’s proposed legislation. The groups believe the proposal would expedite oil and gas projects while “dwarfing” renewable energy installations.

According to the letter, the groups ‘believe there is a better path forward — one that ends the status quo dominance of the fossil fuel industry, empowers federal agencies to use their authorities to accelerate the transition to a just, resilient, and equitable power system, champions the principles of environmental justice and preserves our core environmental laws.”

The letter goes into great detail on what they want permitting reform to include. Of the many issues amending the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) is the hot-button issue. While Senator King and others talk about shortening deadlines for reviewing proposed projects and placing limits on how long litigation can take, the environmental community accuses Congress of scapegoating NEPA when what’s needed is better coordination of federal agency actions. In fairness, better coordination is viewed by all parties as critically important to America’s future.

Manchin's journey to the polls

Although Manchin is a West Virginia institution, he — like Biden — is facing a tough reelection in 2024. The senator served 13 years in the West Virginia House of Delegates. He was elected Secretary of State in 2001 and served as governor from 2005 to 2010 — the year he won a special election to serve out the term of Robert Byrd. In 2012 he easily won reelection with over 60 percent of the vote.

In 2018, the redness of West Virginia began to catch up with him, having won his second senate term with just 49.6 percent of the vote. His opponent in that election was Patrick Morissey. Morissey is West Virginia’s attorney general (AG). He has announced his intention to run for governor.

Morrisey is the first Republican to serve as Attorney General in West Virginia since 1933. As AG, he has been in the vanguard of red state legal assaults on Democratic administration efforts to regulate coal-fired utilities and pipeline emissions.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has also announced his intention to run for the US Senate. Justice was first elected governor in 2016 as a Democrat. In 2017, Justice turned Republican with then-President Trump at his side. His considerable wealth comes from fossil fuels.

To put this in electoral context, West Virginia was second only to Wyoming when it came to casting votes for Trump in 2020. In 2016, the Mountain State was atop the leaderboard — followed by Wyoming and Oklahoma. The former president garnered nearly 69 percent of the vote in West Virginia in both presidential elections.

Given the ruby-redness of West Virginia and the historical reliance of its economy on coal and natural gas, it’s understandable that Manchin would trend right in the run-up to 2024 and advocate for changes to permitting laws that would shorten the approval times of projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Manchin feels betrayed by both congressional Democrats and the White House over permitting reformsAccording to the senator, he secured a commitment from Leader Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, and President Biden to pass this comprehensive permitting reform package before the end of the fiscal year on September 30th, 2022. Opposition from House progressives meant the commitment couldn’t be kept.

The vulnerability of tit-for-tat deals in Congress in an age of mistrust is hardly surprising. President Biden and congressional progressives had initially paired the BBBA and infrastructure bills as a package for good reason. It was understood that as a stand-alone bill, the BBBA would flame out at the hands of moderate Democrats and Republicans.

In the 117th Senate, it took only one Democratic defection to defeat the BBBA. Even had Sinema favored the president’s signature climate legislation, Manchin’s no vote guaranteed its demise.

When it became clear that neither would pass without the separation, the progressives voted in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill after assurance from President Joe Biden that he’d secure a ‘yes’ vote from Manchin on the Build Back Better Act. It, too, was a promise that couldn’t be kept.

“The president’s word is on the line here, and I do still believe that he is going to do what he told me and what he told our caucus and what he told the country he would do.”

Progressives knew that once the bills were torn apart that the BBBA was vulnerable. Representative Cory Bush (D-MO) explained:

“Having [the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better] coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the caucus do? We tossed it.”

Where Manchin felt owed for his support of the IRA, progressives felt violated by his opposition to the BBBA and, therefore, undeserving of their support of his proposed permitting reforms.

What lies ahead for Manchin?

Where Manchin goes from here is of critical importance to President Biden and national climate policy. There are rumors afoot that the West Virginian may run for the presidency — against Joe Biden — but not as a Democrat.

The New York Times and other major news outlets have been reporting for several months that Manchin is openly flirting with running for president under the ticket of No Labels, a political organization backed by wealthy donors that bills itself as a centrist group.

No Labels bills itself as “a woman-inspired, woman-led national movement of commonsense Americans pushing our leaders together to solve our country’s biggest problems.” Its founding chairman is Joe Lieberman, and its national co-chairs are the former Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, and Dr. Benjamin F. Chavez, a legendary civil rights activist.

Although a long way from being a viable national party, the group will minimally show up on the 2024 ballots in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah. There’s still time for the party to find its way onto the presidential ballots in other states.

Notwithstanding Manchin’s brag that he will win any race he enters, it is improbable that he will emerge as the consensus winner of the 2024 presidential election. Should he run, however, he could throw the election over to Trump, DeSantis, or any other Republican presidential candidate.

Whether Manchin runs for the Senate or the presidency, he appears to want to do it at the expense of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Yes, the bill he was responsible for passing in the previous Congress.

“I will vote to repeal my own bill.”

The threat is bluster, as Senate Democrats would never let that happen. However, it is not to say that the threat won’t lead to more uncertainty in the private marketplace or reductions in available program funds. Clean energy markets are already in some turmoil because of the confluence of issues like the debt ceiling, budget reductions, inflation, and tariffs on photovoltaic cells made in China.

Concluding thoughts

I admit to being of two minds when it comes to permitting reform. Ideally, I would like to see changes that give an edge to clean power projects over fossil fuels. We are far from an ideal world, however.

Realistically, reforms need to be made. Manchin and others are right — projects take too long to become operational. Skewing the permitting process toward renewables while penalizing fossil fuels will lead to more bickering and lawsuits.

There’s a point at which the market will reduce the role of fossil fuels in domestic and international economies. The transition is well on the way — sped up by the passage of the IRA, the bipartisan infrastructure, and CHIPs acts in the 117th Congress.

Will the transition happen quickly enough for the nation to stay on the right side of history and the temperature threshold scientists have warned us about for decades? I don’t know.

I do know that stoking the culture wars — of which climate and clean energy are core components — will only lead to more delays. And, whatever happens, Joe Manchin will likely be in the middle of it.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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