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Environmental Justice Advocates Successfully Block Manchin’s Side Deal

Above Photo: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on Nov. 29, 2022. Drew Angerer / Getty Images.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s so-called dirty side deal was dealt another blow when Democratic leadership declined to attach it to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The legislation, which would have fast-tracked permitting for energy projects and pushed through the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, was reportedly supported at first by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, support wavered after more than 750 frontline communities and environmental justice organizations wrote a letter to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer Monday opposing the deal.

“Manchin’s efforts to tie his dirty deal to any must-pass legislation he can get his hands on are undemocratic and potentially devastating for the planet,” Ariel Moger, political affairs director of Friends of the Earth — one of the letter signatories — said, as The Guardian reported. “With momentum on the side of frontline communities, the fight will continue until the bill dies at the end of this Congress.”

Manchin’s side deal, officially called the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), was supposed to be the price Democratic leadership paid for the pro-coal Senator’s support for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the nation’s largest investment in climate spending to date. In exchange for his yes vote, Manchin, who receives more money from fossil fuel and pipeline companies than any other U.S. legislator, wanted a vote on permitting reform. Manchin’s act would limit the environmental review process for energy projects to two years, coordinate the review process under one agency and take steps to avoid delays. It would also mandate that agencies do everything necessary to permit the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial fracked natural gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia that has faced local opposition and legal setbacks.

Democratic leadership argued that Manchin’s bill could ultimately be a good thing for climate action, since it would also facilitate renewable energy projects and the transmission lines needed to connect them to the grid, The Washington Post explained. However, progressive Democrats, environmental and climate justice groups and communities who stand to be impacted by fossil fuel extraction argue that it is dangerous to rush through the planning process in ways that could ignore the voices of stakeholders and undermine long-standing environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“While we acknowledge the importance of accelerating the deployment of renewable energy, that should not come at the expense of gutting bedrock environmental laws such as NEPA and the Clean Water Act or cutting community engagement, and it should certainly not occur in a way that sacrifices environmental justice communities by placing them in [harm’s] way or removing their rights to legal due process or self determination,” the 754 organizations behind Monday’s letter argued.

An attempt to include Manchin’s act with legislation needed to fund the government at the end of September failed when it became clear it could not garner enough votes. At the time, the deal was defeated both by opposition from the left and Republican Senators.

However, on Sunday The Washington Post reported that Schumer and Pelosi were working to get Manchin’s act attached to the NDAA, according to two people familiar with the situation. The NDAA sets the next year’s geopolitical priorities, purchases weapons and establishes pay raises and compensation for injured soldiers and is therefore considered essential legislation, The Guardian explained. The news that Manchin’s permitting proposal might be tacked on to it sparked outrage from environmental justice advocates.

“To think that this is happening at the hands of Democrats, and their very last action of power is going to be to hurt our communities and strip our voice is really hurtful. I feel betrayed,” Maria Lopez Nunez — who is deputy director of New Jersey’s Ironbound Community Corporation and a member of the White House environmental justice advisory council — said, as The Guardian reported. “For any Democrat that’s listening, if you’re playing along to this charade, our community will call you out and we will hold you accountable.”

Republicans will take control of the House in January, and Pelosi is stepping down as leader of the House’s Democratic caucus, leaving her vulnerable to attacks on her legacy.

“We want to make sure that in her last weeks, environmental justice leaders don’t feel betrayed,” Earthjustice legislative director Raul Garcia told The Washington Post.

While Manchin’s side-deal will no longer be attached to the NDAA, climate advocates are still wary that Manchin and his fossil fuel allies will try again.

“The industry will keep trying these secretive, last minute efforts to push forward dirty deals, so we will continue to be alert and we won’t let up the fight,” North America director for letter signatory Jeff Ordower said, as The Guardian reported.

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