WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin III. of West Virginia has secured a pledge from Democratic leaders and the White House to complete a hard-fought 304-mile gas pipeline in his state, his office said, a major concession that will come as part of negotiations on a climate and tax bill.
Manchin, who reached a surprise deal among Democrats last week to pass landmark climate legislation, made easing approvals for energy projects a requirement of the deal. On Tuesday, his office released details of the side agreement he reached with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic Majority Leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Biden.
It would ensure that federal authorities “take all necessary measures to authorize the construction and operation” of the gas pipeline known as the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The project — opposed for years by environmentalists, civil rights activists and many Virginia Democratic lawmakers — would transport natural gas from West Virginia’s Marcellus shale fields across nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands before terminating in Virginia.
The pipeline was originally scheduled to be completed by 2018, but environmental groups have successfully challenged a number of federal permits for the project in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia.
The court overturned permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, saying their analyzes of adverse impacts on wildlife, sedimentation and erosion were flawed.
The delays were so great that the project’s certification by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expires in October. The developers are aiming for an extension for the second time.
Jared Margolis, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups fighting the pipeline, concedes that Congress has the ability to override the courts and move the project forward. But, he said, “that won’t prevent a challenge” from opponents.
The side agreement reached by Mr. Manchin and Democrat leaders would give the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit jurisdiction over any future legal challenges and remove the case from the Fourth Circuit, where environmentalists have been successful.
Other parts of the deal would make it harder for opponents to stop energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, a fundamental environmental law, by setting a two-year deadline for appeals. It would also require the president to set up 25 “priority” projects on federal land, which must include fossil fuels and nuclear power. And it would revise a section of the Clean Water Act to make it harder to block or delay pipeline projects.
Neither Mr. Schumer nor Ms. Pelosi responded to requests for comment. A White House spokesman also did not respond.
Some Democrats, like Raúl Grijalva, the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, have said they will not support measures that speed up pipelines or other energy projects.
But three people familiar with Mr. Manchin’s agreement said Democratic leaders would likely insert the Mountain Valley Pipeline and permitting provisions into legislation that needs to be passed, such as the federal government funding bill, to improve its chances maximize.
Mr Manchin said on Monday he believes the United States needs to reform the rules on permits to increase energy production.
“Why are we traveling the world asking people to do what we want to do for ourselves?” Mr Manchin said. “How do we get a permitting process to address the challenges we have today and the urgency that we can’t handle because of our permit?”
Environmental activists have condemned the Mountain Valley Pipeline and permitting deal and urged Democrats to reconsider that deal with Mr. Manchin.
“The implications of this side deal are very significant, especially as Congress stands ready to accelerate energy project development,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental group. She said she’s particularly concerned that limiting the time to review and challenge projects could allow developers to “treat communities ruthlessly.”
Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have labeled Mr Manchin’s deal dangerous for water quality and the climate, noting that building a new pipeline would guarantee additional greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The pipeline is expected to deliver more than two billion cubic feet of natural gas daily.
Notably, none of the environmental groups urged lawmakers to vote against the climate and tax package, currently worth $369 billion over ten years, to move the nation away from fossil fuels. Energy experts have calculated that the overall package will cut emissions by up to 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade, even with eased permits and other measures Mr Manchin pushed through for fossil fuel development.
Some called the permit agreement a win for energy development as a whole.
“This strikes me as a balanced approach,” said Neil Chatterjee, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Mr Chatterjee said it could also help bring wind, solar and other renewable energy onto the grid faster if it were easier to get permits for projects.
Mr Schumer has indicated he hopes to hold a vote on the broader climate and tax bill as early as this week.