Starting to Think Manchin's Side Deal is in Real Trouble
Congressman Khanna, in a wide-ranging interview, predicts a 'progressive mutiny' if leaders try to jam through the oil favors
It’s starting to become clear that the “side deal” to permit pipelines and other fossil fuel projects that was put forth by Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer as an accessory to the Inflation Reduction Act (aka the ‘climate bill’) faces tougher-than-expected sledding in the Congress. Some of us started lobbying against the giveaways it proposed to the oil industry even before the IRA was signed, but now it appears that the agitation is growing—growing enough that what activists are calling a “dirty deal” may in fact be in danger.
I talked at length this afternoon with Ro Khanna, who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment, and he was quite blunt. He called the side deal a gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and said “that’s not going to happen. You’re not going to get progressive support for that.” In fact, he promised a September 15 hearing of his subcommittee to explore whether or not the fossil fuel industry actually wrote the language of the deal: an early draft circulating on Capitol Hill literally bore a watermark from the American Petroleum Institute.
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He pointed out that Raul Grijalva, chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, had written a letter to Speaker Pelosi saying such a deal was unacceptable. “I’m on that letter, many progressives will get on.” Manchin has said he was promised his deal would be attached to must-pass legislation, presumably the omnibus budget bill. “If that happened, you’d really have a mutiny among my progressive colleagues,” Khanna said.
If the deal—which among other things could explicitly greenlight Appalachia’s Mountain Valley Pipeline boondoggle—did get added to the budget bill, and if Khanna was right that progressives objected, it might still pass if Republicans came on board to back it (that’s how big defense bills get passed each year over progressive objections). But Khanna said it would be “pretty unprecedented” to “come up with an omnibus budget bill that excluded a key caucus. It would split the party before a crucial midterm election,” creating a “media outcry.” It would be “a very divisive move. I’m not saying it’s impossible—we have to guard against it, and that’s why we’re mobilizing now.”
“If this passes,” says Khanna, “it runs roughshod over these communities that have been fighting for five or ten years. There’s no way we can allow that kind of wholesale gutting to happen.”
Opposition to the side deal has come from those vulnerable communities who have used NEPA challenges in the past to try and head off the siting of fossil fuel projects that are almost inevitably dumped on the communities with the least political influence. Representatives of these frontline groups are gathering September 8 in DC for a rally against the deal after a day of lobbying--and they’re clearly beginning to worry Manchin, who took to the pages of the rightwing Washington Examiner today to voice vague threats against the “hard left” if they prevail.
But Manchin’s leverage, Khanna suggested, has seen its zenith—no one expects any more big legislation this year, and after the elections the chances that the Democrats will control the House and the Senate will stay balanced precisely fifty fifty seem slim. But that’s the math that’s given Manchin his edge, and as Khanna said (with the professional admiration of one politican for another), “I think he should be proud of what he got. He got a lot of his version. He got deficit reduction, he got carrots without sticks on the energy pieces. Many of us wanted more sticks, a much bigger spend on infrastructure for EVs, more public transportation, the civilian conservative corps. So he got a lot of what he wanted already.”
Progressives should be happy with the IRA as well, says Khanna. He noted that it’s much smaller than what he and others would have wanted, and was stripped of provisions that would have expanded dental and vision coverage, child care, and other crucial points. “But Sunrise, 350.org, other environmental activists deserve credit for the $370 billion funding on the climate. That number would have been at least five times smaller if it weren’t for the sit-ins at the Speaker’s office, the mobilization behind the Green New Deal, the organizing that allowed Bernie to win Iowa and New Hampshire and do as well as he did. And Bernie’s success—the fact that in 2020 he centered climate as equal pillar to Medicare for All in his campaign—that influenced Biden’s agenda and the Democrat’s agenda.”
In fact, said Khanna, as he and other progressives met with Manchin over the last 18 months, we “made it clear that one thing you can’t cut and expect progressive support is climate funding, and it can’t be window dressing. It has to be north of $300 billion. The fact that that became the highest progressive priority, the red line—that became obvious to the White House, to Manchin. And that was all to the credit of the activists. They made it the number one priority in the president’s bill.”
Khanna also said, however, that some changes in permitting laws may eventually be necessary for the rapid buildout of renewable energy. “Thoughtful people at Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations are open to that, as long as it’s done in a way that isn’t going to just gut NEPA.” He’d read, he said, Ezra Klein’s New York Times column insisting that we’re going to need to build in this country as we haven’t in a century just to start catching up with the physics of climate change.
In fact, everyone’s read that column, and understands at some gut level that we can’t endlessly block renewable energy projects on spurious grounds. I’ve been writing about this since at least 2005, urging construction of sun and wind projects literally in my backyard. Readers of this newsletter will recall my dismay earlier this year when Vermont rejected a small solar farm solely on aesthetic grounds. In a rational world, such permitting reform would focus on stopping hydrocarbons while promoting wind and sun. It might, in fact, look a lot like the “climate test” that Barack Obama enunciated when he stopped the Keystone XL pipeline.
Much of that work is actually underway; the Biden administration has been reading Ezra Klein too, or anticipating him—the White House earlier this year unveiled a new plan to speed infrastructure permitting, setting up an interagency Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPICS) that, as the NRDC pointed out, “will improve coordination among agencies and resolve issues consistent with climate, economic and equity goals,” and the IRA allocates more money to pay the staffers to make the process work. Veteran climate campaigner Jamie Henn: “Manchin's bill is taking a bulldozer to a process that's already getting the makeover it needs.”
In fact, the whole episode demonstrates the ongoing Democratic weakness in talking about the things that the administration has accomplished. We progressives, in particular, excel at critique—but as Khanna said, the new bill was in many ways an ideological watershed. “After 40 years of neoliberalism, we’re finally legislating about making things in the U.S.”
“You had, since Reagan, this consensus on globalization. And globalization did help lift people out of poverty, and it did make for some close ties around the world. But it also had a huge miss: the loss of local production that led to people losing a sense of pride, dignity, hope. It led to right wing populism, not just in the U.S., but in Britain, in France, in Belgium. I think Biden came in recognizing that and wanting to reverse that.” The GOP caricatured the Green New Deal as being about an end to hamburgers, but really “there’s the enormous $9 trillion new energy market, and the U.S. can lead in that. You have to go back to LBJ to see someone defending the role of government in making change like this, and that’s why it’s so important.”
Speaking of which, just yesterday Hyundai announced plans to speed up construction of a new EV factory in the U.S., spurred by the IRA’s tax credits for domestically produced cars. It’s starting to work.
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Other news from around the world of climate and energy
+Scary account in the Financial Times of what scientists are figuring out about recent surges in atmospheric methane
Unravelling the mystery will reveal whether or not the world might face the worst-case scenario of a “methane bomb” — a feedback loop where a warmer planet emits more of the gas naturally, driving temperatures up further. It’s a terrifying prospect, one that scientists studying this topic tend to tiptoe around, particularly in interviews. “We can have a gut feeling that the climate feedback might be happening,” says Lan. “But it can be difficult to separate the signals from the noise.” Others are more direct. “If you think of fossil fuel emissions as putting the world on a slow boil, methane is a blow torch that is cooking us today,” says Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, and an advocate of stricter policies to reduce methane emissions. “The fear is that this is a self-reinforcing feedback loop . . . If we let the earth warm enough to start warming itself, we are going to lose this battle.”
+Wind turbine blades can be recycled into…gummy bears
+Speaking of things that need permits, Sammy Roth with a great piece on Wyoming wind—and how to get it to LA
+Another great element of the IRA climate bill: it officially amends the Clean Air law to make clear, contra this summer’s Supreme Court decision, to make clear it covers greenhouse gas pollution
“The language, we think, makes pretty clear that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act,” said Senator Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who led the movement to revise the law. With the new law, he added, there are “no ifs, ands or buts” that Congress has told federal agencies to tackle carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping emissions from power plants, automobiles and oil wells.