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Climate Groups Slam Debt Ceiling Deal as “Surrender” to Big Oil

The deal requires approval for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and weakens government ability to stop future projects.

Demonstrators with Appalachian and Indigenous climate advocates march against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project approved as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 2022.

In exchange for an increase of the United States government’s arbitrary debt limit, the Biden administration “betrayed the American people,” one climate campaigner said Monday, by accepting a deal that requires the approval of all remaining permits for the planet-heating Mountain Valley Pipeline and weakens the government’s ability to stop further pollution-causing projects.

Environmental protection groups warned that the text of the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 — which, if approved by Congress in the coming days would hold federal nonmilitary spending at its current level in the coming year and increase it by 1% in 2025 — includes a “colossal error” by the Biden administration.

“Singling out the Mountain Valley Pipeline for approval in a vote about our nation’s credit limit is an egregious act,” said Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director with Appalachian Voices. “By attempting to suspend the rules for a pipeline company that has repeatedly polluted communities’ water and flouted the conditions in its permits, the president and Congress would deny basic legal protections, procedural fairness, and environmental justice to communities along the pipeline’s path.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) has previously been denied multiple permits by courts due to concerns about its effects on water quality and environmental justice for the communities it would run through from West Virginia to southern Virginia, but under the bill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be required to issue all remaining permits within 21 days. The bill also attempts to prohibit judicial review of the permits by any government agency.

According to one analysis by Oil Change International, the MVP — a pet project of right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — would emit the equivalent of more than 89 million metric tons of carbon, equal to the emissions of 26 coal plants.

Although President Joe Biden previously said he would not negotiate with Republicans about raising the debt ceiling — which Congress has voted to do 78 times since 1960, mostly under Republican presidents — he is now supporting a deal which includes a dramatic rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in addition to the MVP approval.

The bill limits the environmental reviews that can take place under NEPA for projects that are under the “substantial” control of the federal government, making it easier for future projects to move forward even if frontline communities raise concerns about oil spills, pollution, and other public health and safety risks, as many have regarding the MVP.

“Changes to environmental laws and favors to fossil fuel companies have no place in a bill to raise the debt ceiling,” said Chelsea Barnes, director of government affairs and strategy at Appalachian Voices.

Ariel Moger, government and political affairs director at Friends of the Earth, noted that Manchin “has done as much as Republicans to sabotage the Democratic agenda” by refusing to back Biden’s signature domestic agenda, the Build Back Better Act, in 2021.

Despite this, Moger said, Manchin has “been rewarded” while “MAGA extremists” have been given legislation “filled with polluter giveaways and devastating spending limitations.”

“This agreement is far from a compromise,” she added. “It’s a surrender to Big Oil and Republican hostage-takers in Congress. Democrats should vote NO on this disgraceful deal and force a vote on a clean debt limit increase.”

Biden and Manchin have claimed the MVP is essential for energy security, and the bill text includes claims that the project “will reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition,” despite Oil Change International’s finding that methane gas leakage, pipeline operations, and the burning of the gas delivered by the pipeline would add “tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution to the atmosphere every year for decades to come.”

The legislation includes “too many lies to even begin correcting” about the pipeline, said Grace Tuttle, advocacy director for the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR) Coalition.

“The debt deal insists that building Manchin’s pet MVP pipeline is ‘in the national interest’ and will cut global warming emissions,” said 350.org co-founder and author Bill McKibben. “These things simply aren’t true.”

Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media, noted that Biden’s approval of the MVP comes months after his administration allowed the construction of the massive Willow project, a ConocoPhillips oil drilling operation in Alaska which could send roughly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere by 2050 — even as scientists and energy experts warn that keeping planetary heating below 2°C by then will be impossible if fossil fuel projects continue.

“Support for Biden’s climate record plummeted among young people after his approval of the Willow project,” said Henn. “Greenlighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline will drive it down even further.”

With the Fiscal Responsibility Act, said Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, “Biden has allowed Sen. Manchin and Republicans to hold the government hostage to ram through the climate-killing Mountain Valley Pipeline, dramatically roll back bedrock environmental laws that give voice to frontline communities, and sabotage agencies whose job is to protect the environment and working families.”

“Congress should reject these poison pills,” she said, “and pass a clean debt ceiling bill.”

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