In the Long Fight for Climate Justice, Activists Win Key Victory Against Manchin and Fossil Fuel Industry

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – CC BY 2.0

Senator Joe Manchin failed in a bid last week to ram an environmental deregulation bill through Congress — despite support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the powerful fossil fuel industry. The West Virginia coal millionaire couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed from his colleagues to attach the bill to “must pass” government funding legislation.

This is a huge victory for the environmental justice movement, but Manchin and his deep-pocketed allies will no doubt keep working to advance their agenda.

What’s in Manchin’s bill?

It’s important to clear up some misconceptions about this bill. Contrary to proponents’ assertions, it’s a very poor vehicle to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. That’s because it not merely allows, but mandates accelerated permitting for traditional dirty energy projects such as fossil fuels and biofuels and new dirty energy technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen, treating them on par with renewable energy and electric transmission projects.

The scientific case against building any new fossil fuel infrastructure is well-established. Mandating fossil fuel expansion puts the United States at odds with the UN Environment Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and statements by the UN Secretary General. Even the International Energy Agency, which has historically tended to favor fossil fuels, acknowledges that there is “no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.”

Likewise, the bill isn’t really about good governance and “reform.” Rather, it’s about rigging the federal environmental review and permitting process even more in favor of corporations and against impacted communities. It sets very restrictive timelinesfor public comment on environmental impact statements (60 days) and all other reviews (45 days). This weights the process against often under-resourced frontline communities, who would have a very short time window to review a complex technical document and write detailed comments in response.

The timeline set by this legislation for legal challenges to permitting decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act is also very restrictive, once again disadvantaging frontline communities.

The power asymmetry between project developers and communities already exists under current law. We wouldn’t have toxic-heavy “sacrifice zones” such as Cancer Alley in Louisiana if communities really had the power to stop most polluting projects in their tracks. This legislation serves to make the power asymmetry even more rigid and one-sided.

Frontline communities most hurt by the fossil fuel industry are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, and Brown. Two powerful white men have colluded with industry to sacrifice them yet again.

Let’s call this what it is – white supremacy.

Crony capitalist corruption

The bill requires federal agencies to issue permits for one specific project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and most alarmingly, exempts these permits from judicial review.

Favored treatment for one infrastructure project is a terrible legal precedent, and it smells of crony capitalism. Senate Energy Committee Chair Manchin has received more than $70,000 in campaign contributions from MVP developers NextEra Energy and Equitrans Midstream in the current election cycle. He’s also the largest recipient of oil and gas industry money in the Senate and House, by a wide margin

It gets worse. Schumer has received more than $283,000 in campaign contributions from NextEra Energy between 2017 and 2022, making them his second-largest campaign donor.

This is shocking corruption at the highest levels of government. In secret negotiations in August, Schumer promised Manchin passage of his permitting bill in exchange for Manchin’s vote on a high-priority Democratic social and environmental spending package. It’s hardly surprising that two wealthy white men who’d been bribed by a corporation standing to benefit from the bill cut a deal that promotes corporate over community interests and undermines regulatory and judicial processes.

The pipeline itself is an ecological and human rights disaster. It will carry gas with annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 35 coal-fired power plants (assuming a realistic rate of methane leakage). [Note: recent scientific studies show significantly higher leakage rates than previously thought, and a 3 percent leakage rate is much more realistic than the 1 percent leakage that has been assumed by the EPA.]

The pipeline also has serious water quality impacts, putting already vulnerable communities in its path at risk. My colleague Gabrielle Colchete and I found in a 2020 report that pipeline-affected communities in West Virginia had a poverty rate 25 percent higher than the national average, and over half of the Census tracts in the pipeline’s path had a life expectancy lower than the national average.

Why do we care? Isn’t the bill dead?

Not so fast. Senate Republicans have their own version of permitting “reform” that’s even worse than the Manchin bill. It allows states complete authority to regulate fracking, and gives them control over oil and gas leasing on federal lands within their borders. In addition to weakening the federal environmental review law and the Clean Water Act, it goes beyond the Manchin bill by gutting the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, among other giveaways to polluters.

There are disturbing early indications that the White House supports bringing the legislation back up for a vote, and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) supports negotiating with Manchin to create a “bipartisan” bill attached to an upcoming defense spending bill. Given how extreme the Republican proposal is, any bipartisan compromise will only result in the Manchin bill becoming worse.

A win for environmental justice

No, Manchin’s “dirty deal” isn’t dead. But it’s important to acknowledge this sign of the growing power and coordination of frontline and grassroots movements.

“The failure of the dirty deal is a testament to the power of the people,” the 1,200 member People vs Fossil Fuels coalition said in a statement. The Climate Justice Alliance called it “a testament to the power of frontline community organizing and a victory for environmental justice communities everywhere.”

We can’t be under any illusion that we won’t have to fight this proposal again. But the power of organizing, especially by grassroots and frontline communities, has resulted in a setback for polluting industry’s political agenda.

The long war ahead

The fossil fuel industry, one of the largest and most politically connected, will do everything in their power to get what they want.

Our movements are getting ready for another inevitable showdown with the industry and its political champions such as Senators Manchin and Schumer. The mood is clearly one of defiant optimism tempered by realism.

“We must stay mindful that the industry will continue to target our communities and Tribal nations, putting profit before people, land and our water,” cautioned Joye Braun, National Pipelines Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We also know that this fight is far from over,” said Climate Justice Alliance Co-Director Ozawa Bineshi Albert, who also delivered a warning to the industry and its supporters: “we will continue to fight for what is right, the protection of our communities and homelands.”

“Let the downfall of this bill be a lesson to Senator Manchin, his fossil fuel cronies, and allied politicians,” said Russell Chisholm, Mountain Valley Watch Coordinator at the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition. “We will no longer be sacrificed for your corrupt interests. We are united against all fossil fuel projects and we will ensure the livable and just future that we deserve. Join us or step aside.”

Big money and the top leadership of both political parties are aligned against us, but public opinion is on our side. The fact that Congressional leadership decided to attach this bill to must-pass legislation and are considering doing it again, is a tacit admission that it’s unpopular. We can’t predict the outcome of the fight, but supporters of the dirty deal can rest assured they’ve picked a fight with the wrong people.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.