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Activists Living in Shadow of Fossil Fuels Oppose Democrats’ Deal With Manchin

The deal with Manchin would fast-track pipelines and export terminals facing grassroots opposition.

A demonstrator wears a photograph of Sen. Joe Manchin as a mask while playing a puppet master at the periphery of a rally highlighting the efforts of congressional Democrats to legislate against climate change outside the U.S. Capitol on October 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

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Environmental justice activists say plans in Congress to fast-track approval of new fossil fuel infrastructure — part of a controversial side deal struck by Democrats over passing the Inflation Reduction Act — endanger communities in the path of new mega-pipelines and export terminals. These projects would nearly guarantee climate-warming pollution for decades to come, the organizers say.

Crystal Mello lives in one these communities, a rural area outside of Elliston, Virginia. Mello says her family is fortunate to live outside the “blast zone” — the roughly three-mile radius of a hypothetical explosion caused by an accident along the Mountain Valley Pipeline — but anxiety about this “uniquely risky” pipeline crossing steep, irregular Appalachian terrain pushed Mello to organize with other locals and join activists resisting the project. Like many other volunteers in Appalachia, Mello has documented accidents and safety violations at pipeline construction sites over the past four years.

“For folks in my community that will never be able to afford an electric car, who are worried about insulation during the winter, it doesn’t matter if [the Inflation Reduction Act] is a golden egg or whatever,” Mello said in an interview. “This company still does shitty work.”

Equitrans, one of the companies building the 300-plus-mile fracked gas pipeline, recently asked federal regulators for a four-year extension to finish building the divisive and long-delayed project, which has faced numerous lawsuits, court injunctions, permit violations and at least one direct action blockade. The company now says the pipeline will be completed in 2023, thanks to a deal struck in Congress between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both Democrats.

To secure Manchin’s crucial vote on the Inflation Reduction Act — which represents a crucial slice of President Joe Biden’s agenda that contains a host of popular climate and environmental justice provisions, along with other Democratic priorities — Democrats agreed to pursue separate legislation aimed at speeding up approval and construction of new fossil fuel projects.

The $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act would make historic investments in clean energy, electric cars and environmental justice communities impacted by industrial pollution and the climate crisis, all investments environmentalists say are badly needed. However, activists say “giveaways” to the industry are buried in the bill, and the deal with Manchin would undermine legal tools used by communities to block pipelines and other projects.

A draft outline of the agreement reads: “Complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” The proposal would also set deadlines for federal permit reviews and litigation over other new fossil fuel projects, including natural gas export terminals and others of “strategic national importance.” Activists say such legislation would undermine the National Environmental Protect Act (NEPA), a bedrock federal law routinely leveraged by activists and communities threatened by controversial projects.

The compromise proposal must pass as separate legislation with support from Senate Republicans, who voted against the Inflation Reduction Act but are major proponents of fossil fuels.

Anusha Narayanan, the climate campaign director at Greenpeace USA, pointed out that Manchin is a top Senate recipient of contributions from the fossil fuel industry, including from companies invested in the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry gas fracked in his state to the East Coast for export. NextEra Energy, a utility with a stake in the pipeline, is a top donor to both Manchin and Schumer, as reported by The New York Times.

“This side deal is Manchin’s sweetheart deal with the fossil fuel industry and a way to appease them,” Narayanan said in an interview. “NEPA was been a way for frontline groups and grassroots activists to be able to fight these infrastructure projects in their back yard that have polluted their air and water, and we can’t water that down.”

As Russian President Vladimir Putin leverages natural gas supplies that keep the lights on in Europe while becoming increasingly isolated for invading and brutalizing Ukraine, the Biden administration and other top Democrats are now prioritizing the export of fracked gas from the United States.

High global fuel prices, fueled by inflation and the war in Ukraine, are colliding with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and across the world, creating the kind of political chaos Putin relies on to knock his opponents off their feet. Biden and Democrats have also faced withering, and sometimes counterfactual, attacks over fuel prices from Republicans eager to take down Biden’s modest climate agenda and win control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections.

The fossil fuel industry is pouncing on the opportunity. Industry is eager to finalize permits for liquified fracked gas export terminals and major pipelines such as Mountain Valley, and the Biden administration wants more gas exports to Europe, where allies are facing the prospect of fuel shortages this winter due to Putin’s maneuvers. Policy makers tend to support gas because it burns cleaner than coal, and the industry wants to lock in new infrastructure to keep fossil fuels pumping for decades even as much of the world turns to cleaner energy.

The industry also secured a major win buried deep within the sprawling Inflation Reduction Act. Before renewable energy can expand on federal property, the bill would require regulators to open vast swaths of public lands and ocean waters to oil and gas drilling, a practice Biden pledged to bring to an end on the campaign trail. According to a recent statement from the Center for Biological Diversity:

The bill would require the Interior Department to offer at least 2 million acres of public lands and 60 million acres of offshore waters for oil and gas leasing each year for a decade as a prerequisite to installing any new solar or wind energy. If the department failed to offer these minimum amounts for leasing, no right of ways could be granted for any utility-scale renewable energy project on public lands or waters.

“This is a climate suicide pact,” continued Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s self-defeating to handcuff renewable energy development to massive new oil and gas extraction.”

James Hiatt lives near three export terminals operating in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and at least seven more are proposed for the region despite opposition from local residents and environmental groups. Hiatt, an organizer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group, said there is no reason to fast-track permits for the new terminals. Several proposed terminals received key permits years ago and have yet to break ground.

“Permitting delays isn’t what has kept these proposed gas exports from being built; it’s the lack of the actual need in the marketplace for the gas that has held them up,” Hiatt said in an interview, noting that investors often consider long-term profits over short-term gains. “Locking in this fossil fuel infrastructure is a 30-year deal, and all these gas export terminals are slated to operate for at least 30 years, so what ends up being built is going to have a big impact on the climate.”

Narayanan warned that investments in renewable energy at home would push the industry to export more fossil fuels abroad, which could negate progress the U.S. makes on its own climate emissions.

“The potential reduction in domestic consumption of fossil fuels from the Inflation Reduction Act paired with the Ukraine crisis and Europe’s energy demands could lead to disastrous levels of gas exports,” Narayanan said. “It’ll have huge health, safety and climate justice impacts for communities both here in the U.S. and for communities abroad burning the fossil fuels.”

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