Debt limit bill would speed completion of controversial West Virginia gas pipeline

Lengths of pipe wait to be laid in the ground along the under-construction Mountain Valley Pipeline near Elliston, Virginia, September 29, 2019.

Charles Mostoller | Reuters

A bipartisan debt limit bill struck by President Joe Biden and House Republicans over the weekend would expedite approval of all permits for a West Virginia natural gas pipeline and curtail environmental reviews under one of the country’s landmark environmental laws. 

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been promoted by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would transport natural gas 303 miles from West Virginia to the Southeast, and part of it would cross through the Jefferson National Forest. The construction of the $6.6 billion pipeline is nearly done, though plans have been delayed for several years amid legal setbacks.

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Climate and civil rights activists and some state Democrats have strongly opposed the pipeline. Scientists have repeatedly warned that the country must halt approvals for new fossil fuel projects and quicken the clean energy transition to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

While the Biden administration has imposed an aggressive climate agenda, the president has also taken steps to boost fossil fuel production and work with Manchin and Republicans, who’ve argued the president’s climate agenda is endangering U.S. energy security.

Critics of the Mountain Valley Pipeline say it will run through predominantly rural, low-income Indigenous communities and will undermine the country’s efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions and pollution that disproportionally harms environmental justice communities. 

“The dirty debt ceiling deal is essentially an assault on our climate and working families. It is a climate bomb … and health threat to every community in its pathway,” Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said during a call on Tuesday. “It’s incredibly vital that Congress vote on a clean debt ceiling deal.”

Proponents say the pipeline is vital to bolstering U.S. domestic energy security, and that the plan was already near completion and set to move forward.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on his deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to raise the United States’ debt ceiling at the White House in Washington, May 28, 2023.

Julia Nikhinson | Reuters

The debt limit bill expedites the pipeline’s federal permits and limits judicial review. Still, the project could still be held up or blocked by lawsuits.

U.S. energy company Equitrans Midstream Corporation earlier this month said it anticipated to finish the pipeline by the end of the year, but added “there remains significant risk and uncertainty, including regarding current and likely litigation.”

“President Biden protected his historic climate legislation, stopped House Republicans from clawing back record funding for environmental justice projects and secured a deal to get hundreds of clean energy projects online faster all while protecting the full scope of environmental reviews,” Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesman, said.

“We believe this is a bipartisan compromise that Congressional Democrats can be proud of and that will accelerate our clean energy goals and climate agenda,” Hasan said.

The deal would also streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark environmental regulation, to limit its requirements on some projects.

The agreement would designate “a single lead agency” to develop environmental reviews in order to speed the process, and shorten the time the federal government takes to analyze a proposed plan’s environmental impact.

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Environmental groups argued the NEPA provision would further curtail the public’s ability to provide input on fossil fuel projects that would harm overburdened communities. A letter from 175 groups on Tuesday urged Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and members of Congress to vote on a clean debt ceiling bill.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said in a statement that the reform to NEPA analysis is “extremely important for getting the country back on the path of energy dominance.”

“This is a strong first step to getting American energy infrastructure more expeditiously permitted, thereby reducing costs to taxpayers, and easing high energy prices for consumers,” Sgamma said of the debt ceiling agreement.

Congress is set to vote on the legislation as early as Wednesday. Both Republican and Democratic support is required for the bill to pass. The deal must pass the Senate before the June 5 deadline set by the Treasury Department.

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Source – CNBC