An overhaul of natural gas pipeline permitting by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is set to be included in a congressional spending package this week, but some House Democrats and now Senate Republicans are balking, with the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) caught in the crosshairs.

MVP

Stopgap spending legislation, known as a continuing resolution (CR), is likely to be unveiled as Congress returns to work this week to prevent a government shutdown at month’s end. The 2022 fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and the spending measure would give lawmakers time to finalize 2023 spending. 

Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, voted in support of President Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act. To secure his vote, the president, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “committed to advancing a suite of commonsense permitting reforms this fall that will ensure all energy infrastructure, from transmission to pipelines and export facilities, can be efficiently and responsibly built to deliver energy safely around the country and to our allies,” Manchin said.

Manchin, who expects the pipeline changes to be in the CR, said he would offer “pragmatic proposals…That’s always been where it’s going to be.”

Details of the CR had not been published as of Monday, but a summary of Manchin’s legislation issued earlier this year indicated the reform package would require completion of the MVP, a natural gas conduit that would traverse about 300 miles between West Virginia and southern Virginia. 

FERC in August granted MVP another four years to finish construction and enter service.

In addition to removing barriers to complete the MVP, Manchin wants to modify the Clean Water Act, establish limits on environmental lawsuits and set timelines for environmental reviews of large industrial projects. It also would allow the president to prioritize some infrastructure projects, both for fossil fuels and renewable energy. 

Enough Democrats In Support?

Whether Democrats can get Manchin’s wish list passed, particularly in the House, is suspect.

“The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny,” wrote 72 House Democrats in a letter Friday (Sept. 9).  

“We urge you to ensure that these provisions are kept out of a continuing resolution or any other must-pass legislation this year,” said the letter spearheaded by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ). 

The letter was sent to Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD). 

House Democrats hold an eight-seat majority. The Democrats opposed to the permitting change said it would undermine the federal Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The evenly split Senate has most Democrats leaning toward supporting Manchin’s plan. However, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats, said he would oppose the “disastrous side deal.” Removing barriers to pipeline permitting would pave the way for companies to “pollute the environment and destroy our planet.”

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Most Republicans favor changes to the federal permitting system, but the looming midterm elections in November could scuttle bipartisan dealmaking.

To that end, Manchin’s fellow West Virginian, GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, has introduced a competing bill with 43 Republican co-sponsors. Capito is ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. 

The Capito-led Simplify Timelines and Assure Regulatory Transparency (START) Act, would provide “comprehensive federal regulatory permitting and project review reform legislation,” she said.

“Since our calls for action and offers to see legislative text from the permitting ‘deal’ remain unheeded, Republicans are introducing this legislation…to deliver solutions to the roadblocks, delays, and postponements of key infrastructure projects across the country,” Capito said. 

“The START Act would provide regulatory certainty to states, expedite permitting and review processes, codify substantive environmental regulatory reforms, and expedite permitting of the critically important Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

“Republicans are unified in working to deliver needed permitting reform, and this legislation is a blueprint for how we can help communities benefit from being able to finally get critical projects across the finish line.”

Looking To Gas Up

Meanwhile, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA) separately told Congress that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) should help secure more access to natural gas by expanding pipeline infrastructure. 

The letter from IECA CEO Paul Cicio urged FERC and NERC to actively endorse expanding infrastructure. “For decades, the current system has worked well,” Cicio wrote. “When pipeline capacity was needed, pipeline companies filed permits to the FERC and for the most part, the pipelines were approved and built without much delay. That is no longer the case.”

IECA’s letter followed a forum held by FERC last week regarding New England’s lack of gas pipeline infrastructure. Because of pipeline constraints, New England relies on LNG imports during the winter months.

Being proactive in advancing infrastructure is necessary because U.S. manufacturers rely on natural gas. Cicio noted. The sector has taken a hit from rising fuel costs and from competing for gas with utilities and LNG export facilities.

“The FERC’s responsibility needs to shift from being a regulator of pipeline permits to having responsibility to ensure that the pipelines that are needed will get built to secure our nation’s reliability,” wrote Cicio.

Until more natural gas is available for all ratepayers, the IECA chief argued that FERC should coordinate with power generators to consider extending the lives of nuclear and coal-fired power plants.