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What Did Joe Manchin Get for $433 Billion?

Sen. Joe Manchin


J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The Senate’s new tax-and-spend bill isn’t pretty, but what did deal-maker

Joe Manchin

get in the bargain? His answer is that Democratic leaders have “committed to advancing a suite of commonsense permitting reforms this fall that will ensure all energy infrastructure, from transmission to pipelines and export facilities, can be efficiently and responsibly built.”

Big if true, as they say. That promise to Mr. Manchin is going to cost Americans $433 billion in spending and $327 billion in taxes. The country desperately needs streamlined permitting for building of all kinds, energy included. The Northeast is a natural-gas bottleneck. Export terminals could fuel European allies and break

Vladimir Putin’s

leverage. But nobody outside the negotiating room seems to know what specific “reforms” are in play. Mr. Manchin’s office isn’t rushing out answers.

One culprit for permitting sclerosis is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a 1970 law that imposes environmental reviews. The Trump Administration put presumptive limits on such studies, while stressing a focus on “reasonably foreseeable” environmental effects. White House data showed that from 2013-17 the average final impact statement took four years and ran 669 pages. Incredible but true outliers included a 12-mile Interstate expansion in Denver: 13 years and 8,951 pages.

The Biden Administration has already reversed some of its predecessor’s NEPA handiwork, with more to come. Did President Biden and Speaker

Nancy Pelosi

privately agree to undo what the White House is doing? There’s reason to doubt it. Mrs. Pelosi was livid about the Trump changes at the time. “This means more polluters will be right there next to the water supply of our children,” she said. Yet without NEPA revisions, good projects will keep getting stuck in unending delays and lawsuits.

Permitting nightmares are everywhere. To launch some rockets from Texas, this summer SpaceX was ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration to write a “historical context report” on nearby events of the Mexican-American War. Two separate pipelines in recent years have won Supreme Court cases and been canceled anyway. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural-gas project originating in Mr. Manchin’s West Virginia, is in legal limbo despite being almost 95% complete.

The Democratic Party has a sizable keep-it-in-the-ground caucus bent on killing all fossil-fuel development. Progressives don’t seem to realize that red tape doesn’t spare green plans. The American Wind Energy Association welcomed Mr. Trump’s NEPA reforms. How does Mr. Biden fantasize he can decarbonize the electric grid by 2035, if it takes years to get permission to build anything?


Mr. Manchin is out on a political limb. The permitting reform isn’t a budget item, so it can’t be wrapped into the tax-and-spend deal, which Democrats intend to pass with 51 votes under the Senate’s reconciliation rules. Mr. Schumer says he wants to get that done before the August recess, at which point Mr. Manchin would be at Mrs. Pelosi’s mercy. Why sign up for a $433 billion bill today, when the permitting details aren’t written down on a public sheet of paper?

What if Mrs. Pelosi refuses to grant a vote to the permitting bill, or if Mr. Schumer can’t deliver 10 Democrats to get it past a filibuster, or if Mr. Biden decides to veto it? Is Mr. Manchin prepared to go medieval on Democratic priorities and nominees until they make good on what he says he was promised? On the other hand, if Democratic leaders have agreed to a permitting agenda, how substantive and friendly to fossil fuels will it be?

Skepticism is brewing on both sides. Democratic Rep.

Raul Grijalva

told E&E News he worries permitting reform might be a “euphemism for gutting our most foundational environmental and public health protections, like the National Environmental Policy Act.” Republican Sen.

Kevin Cramer’s

concern is whether the Administration can be trusted to follow through: “We have lots of permitting reform in the infrastructure bill that the Department of Transportation and others just ignore.”

Assuming Mr. Manchin can deliver, this will be history’s costliest permitting bill. But how about telling the public, Senator, what exactly you’ve negotiated?

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Appeared in the July 30, 2022, print edition as ‘What Did Manchin Get for $433 Billion?.’


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