BLACKSBURG, Va. — After years of fierce opposition from environmental activists, the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a 304-mile gas pipeline that runs through the Appalachian Mountains — has been behind schedule, over budget and beset with lawsuits. As recently as February, one of its developers, NextEra Energy, warned that the many legal and regulatory roadblocks meant there was “a very low probability of the pipeline’s completion.”
Then came Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and his influence on the Democrats’ climate agenda.
Mr. Manchin’s recent surprise approval to back the Biden administration’s historic climate legislation came about in part because the senator was promised something in return: not just pipeline support in his home state, but accelerated approval of pipelines and other infrastructure across the country, part of a broader set of fossil fuel concessions.
It was a major win for a pipeline industry that has quietly become one of Mr. Manchin’s biggest financial supporters in recent years.
Natural gas pipeline companies have dramatically increased their donations to Mr. Manchin, from just $20,000 in 2020 to more than $331,000 so far this election cycle, according to campaign finance data filed with the Federal Election Commission and counted by the Center for Responsive Politics became. Mr. Manchin was by far the largest recipient of Congressional cash from natural gas pipeline companies this cycle, raising three times more from the industry than any other lawmaker.
NextEra Energy, a utility giant and stakeholder in the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is a top donor to both Mr. Manchin and Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, who negotiated the pipeline subcontract with Mr. Manchin. Mr. Schumer has received more than $281,000 from NextEra this election cycle, data shows. Equitrans Midstream, which owns the largest interest in the pipeline, has given Mr. Manchin more than $10,000. The pipeline and its owners have also spent a lot of money trying to influence Congress.
The revelations point to the extraordinary behind-the-scenes spending and deals by the fossil fuel industry that have shaped a climate law that will nonetheless be transformative. The final reconciliation package, approved by the Senate on Sunday, would allocate nearly $400 billion to climate and energy policies, including support for cleaner technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, and put the United States on track to do so reduce their emissions by about 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
A spokesman for Mr. Manchin said the Mountain Valley Pipeline “will help reduce energy costs, strengthen America’s energy security and create jobs in West Virginia.” An official in Mr. Schumer’s office said the pipeline deal was “taken up only at the urging of Sen. Manchin as part of an agreement related to this reconciliation bill.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans, said the company has maintained a “high standard of integrity” when working with policymakers. She declined to say whether Equitrans pushed either senator onto the pipeline. NextEra Energy did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite concessions like the pipeline deal, major environmental groups as well as progressives in Congress have hailed the legislation. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, called it a “great opportunity” for the country to enact meaningful climate legislation.
But in Appalachia, where the Mountain Valley Pipeline cuts steep mountainsides and cuts through nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands, the deal has highlighted economic and social tensions in a region where extractive industries have created jobs in coal mines and on fracking platforms for generations, but have also left deep scars on the land and communities.
For years, environmental and civil rights activists, as well as many Democratic state legislators, have opposed the pipeline project, which would transport more than two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia and through southern Virginia. Construction of the pipeline was due to be completed by 2018, but environmental groups have successfully challenged a number of federal permits in court where judges have found the pipeline developers’ analyzes of wildlife impact, sedimentation and erosion to be inadequate.
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The pipeline deal means Appalachia will once again become a “victim zone” for the greater good, said Russell Chisholm, an Iraq War veteran and member of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, a coalition of groups opposed to construction.
He was visiting a neighbor, Jammie Hale, on Friday, who was holding up a glass of cloudy tap water. It was thick with sediment that Mr. Hale suspected had been displaced by construction work along the pipeline route that runs alongside his property near Virginia’s West Virginia border. Both men clashed with police during protests. They spoke under an American flag, which Mr. Hale had hung upside down since the workers first started laying pipes.
“If working people and poor people benefited, this law could really help,” Mr Chisholm said. “But that’s all a mystery to us because it turns out they negotiated behind the scenes. It turned out that the pipeline was on the negotiating table and we were not at that table.”
“There’s a tendency to write off our region as a red state that got what came its way,” he added.
The concerns in Appalachia underscore the real implications of Democrats’ fossil fuel concessions. The climate law also requires the federal government to auction off more public land and water for oil drilling as a requirement for more renewable energy sources like wind and solar. It extends tax credits for carbon capture technologies that could allow coal or gas-fired power plants to continue operating with reduced emissions.
Mr. Manchin has also secured commitments for a follow-up law that would make it easier to greenlight energy infrastructure projects and make it harder to oppose such projects under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
These provisions could encourage further construction of pipelines, gas-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel infrastructure to the detriment of low-income neighborhoods, which already disproportionately host these industries and often have fewer resources to deal with developers.
“People like me who are just trying to survive don’t have the time to attend hearings and meetings,” said Crystal Mello, who has been cleaning homes in southwest Virginia for two decades to make a living. While sweeping floors, she listened to local hearings through her earbuds and found any time she could to support “sit-ins” in trees in nearby Elliston to stop pipeline workers from cutting them down. She is now a community organizer, although she continues to clean houses.
“Those mountains are meant to be protected by trees,” she said. “People say it’s a good deal, but at what price?”
The natural gas pipeline concessions come amid a dramatic turnaround in the industry. For years, a natural gas glut had depressed prices, and the coronavirus pandemic continued to dampen demand. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the recovery of the US economy, have pushed prices higher.
As a result, natural gas pipelines and export terminals have become a key growth opportunity as Europe seeks ways to wean itself off Russian gas. And even as the United States takes steps to add more renewable energy sources, natural gas and oil remain the bedrock of the US economy, and much of that fuel is transported through pipelines across the country.
West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice said the pipeline should be completed and urged the Biden administration to include all forms of energy. “This country needs to become totally energy independent,” he said at a briefing in February. “Without question, if it were, we would feel better, stronger, and better.” Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin also said the pipeline is vital to his state.
Proponents point to other benefits the legislation would bring to West Virginia. It would cement a federal trust fund to help, for example, miners suffering from black lung disease and provide incentives to build wind and solar farms in areas where coal mines or coal-fired power plants have recently closed.
“If you look to the future, it will help,” said David Owens, a retired local firefighter, after filling up his SUV outside of Blacksburg, Virginia. “It will happen.”
It remains unclear exactly how Mr. Manchin’s pipeline deal will work. Under the terms released by the senator, the agreement requires federal agencies to take “all necessary actions” to authorize the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The terms of the agreement, which would be incorporated into subsequent legislation, would also give the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit jurisdiction over any future legal challenges, rather than retaining that authority with the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. Va., where environmentalists have been successful.
The Fourth Circuit revoked permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, saying their analyzes of adverse impacts on wildlife, sedimentation and erosion were flawed. The pipeline project had particular trouble getting permission to cross creeks or wetlands in a part of the country with so many of them.
Joseph M. Lovett, an attorney for the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates who is campaigning against the pipeline, said any jurisdictional change mandated by Congress is “ridiculous.”
“We are a rule of law. The powerful don’t have the right to elect judges,” he said, adding, “If rich people can pay to get a better day in court, that’s just corruption.”
Mr. Manchin has made his view clear that fossil fuels will continue to be necessary. He became a millionaire through his family’s coal business and has taken more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than any of his peers.
Mr. Manchin has received more contributions in part because he chairs the Senate Energy Committee. Major pipeline companies that have contributed include Enterprise Products Partners, Energy Transfer LP, Plains All American Pipeline and Williams Companies.
David Seriff, who has long opposed the pipeline, looked out Saturday from Brush Mountain, where the pipeline would cross a half-mile from his home. As construction has stalled, parts of the thick pipe have been exposed on the ground for years. “I don’t come here often anymore because I hate to see it,” he said.
Mr. Seriff said he was encouraged by actions in Congress to address climate change. “But the Democrats and people posing as environmentalists are also willing to build the pipeline,” he said.