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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) returns to the room where a bipartisan group of senators and White House officials are holding negotiations over the Biden administration's proposed infrastructure plan at the U.S. Capitol on June 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Samuel Corum via Getty Images)

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) returns to the room where a bipartisan group of senators and White House officials are holding negotiations over the Biden administration's proposed infrastructure plan at the U.S. Capitol on June 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Samuel Corum via Getty Images)

'Manchin Wasn't Done' Killing Climate Action: Coal Baron Objects to Methane Fee

"If Democrats want to avoid... midterm losses," said one critic, they can't "bow to Joe Manchin's burn-the-planet demands."

Kenny Stancil

Progressives are fuming amid reports that right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is pushing his party to weaken or remove the reconciliation bill's proposed fee on methane pollution, even as scientists warn that humanity's fate depends on rapidly slashing emissions of the potent greenhouse gas.

"As anyone with a leaky roof will tell you, making sufficient investments early on is key to avoiding catastrophic costs down the line."

Manchin's opposition to imposing a methane fee on oil and gas producers—whose leaky wells constitute a key source of emissions—comes just over a week after the West Virginia coal profiteer nixed the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). That far-reaching measure was described as the Build Back Better Act's most important climate provision because it would have penalized power plants relying on fossil fuels and rewarded those driven by wind and solar, facilitating the transition from dirty to green energy.

Progressive critics responded with outrage to Manchin's planet-threatening obstruction and urged left-leaning lawmakers to fight back.

"That's it—the last remaining policy in the [Build Back Better] Act that actually restrained fossil fuels," tweeted journalist David Roberts. "Now the bill is exactly what Manchin wanted: a bunch of subsidies for new stuff; zero punitive policies to wind down old stuff."

Noting that the methane fee and CEPP "were the only two actual regulations on emissions," journalist Amy Westervelt argued that corporate Democrats' gutting of the reconciliation bill's transformative social welfare and decarbonization proposals makes it "not worth passing."

The original Build Back Better Act is overwhelmingly popular, and while passing it through the budget reconciliation process would make the legislation immune to a GOP filibuster, doing so requires the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and all but three House Democrats.

Manchin's life-threatening objections have left the Democratic Party scrambling to salvage environmental policies in the watered-down package, which the White House and congressional leaders want to finish before President Joe Biden heads to Glasgow for COP 26, the United Nations climate change conference that starts on Sunday.

As the New York Times reported Monday night:

[Biden] hopes to point to the bill to make the case that the United States, the world's largest historical greenhouse polluter, is finally taking strong, forceful action to cut its fossil fuel emissions—and to push other countries to do the same. Mr. Biden has pledged that the United States will reduce its emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Analysts have found that it would be technically possible, although difficult, for the United States to meet that goal without passing the clean electricity legislation that Mr. Manchin opposes. The broader spending package still includes about $300 billion in tax credits for wind and solar energy, which analysts say could get the United States about halfway to Mr. Biden's target. But removing the methane fee legislation could further weaken his case in Glasgow.

Technically, the methane fee is not yet dead, as discussions are ongoing.

"The methane fee is not out of the package," Rachel Levitan, a spokesperson for Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and architect of the legislation, said in a statement. "Chairman Carper is working to get robust climate provisions in the reconciliation bill and is in active negotiations to ensure that the bill meaningfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions."

According to the Times:

Another person familiar with the matter said that Mr. Manchin appeared open to negotiating the details of the methane fee to make it easier and cheaper for natural gas companies to comply. 

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a draft regulation as soon as this week that would compel oil and gas producers to monitor and plug methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells. Among Mr. Manchin's objections to the fee is that it could be duplicative of those rules, according to the two people familiar with the matter.

Reuters noted that several conservative Democrats from oil-producing Texas are also opposed to their party's proposal to tax fossil fuel corporations for methane emissions that exceed a certain threshold. Last month, Reps. Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez, Lizzie Fletcher, Sylvia Garcia, Marc Veasey, Filemon Vela, and Collin Allred wrote a letter to House leaders expressing their concerns about policies "targeting the U.S. oil, natural gas, and refining industries."

Due to the intransigence of right-wing Democrats, Carper and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the methane fee, are "working to find a compromise," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. One potential workaround involves providing $700 million in rebates to help oil and gas producers "comply with the fee."

Progressives stressed that meeting Biden's goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution in half by the end of this decade requires "rapidly shutting down all coal power plants and sharply reducing methane leaks."

With the CEPP apparently off the table for now, resolving outstanding issues with the methane fee, which represents about 10% of the package's emissions reduction plan, according to Jesse Jenkins of Princeton University's Zero Lab, is crucial.

Although carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere far longer, methane is up to 87 times more potent over a 20-year period, making it a dangerous driver of global warming in the near term.

That's why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and climate scientists worldwide have emphasized that methane emissions must be drastically reduced—far more than Biden's proposed target of 30% by 2030—to stave off the planetary emergency's worst consequences.

Urgent warnings about the deadly risks of methane pollution, however, have failed to persuade Manchin and some other right-wing Democrats of the need to impose more costs and constraints on the fossil fuel industry.

Over the course of his 11-year career on Capitol Hill, Manchin has taken more than $1.5 million from corporate interests engaged in a lobbying blitz to undermine the Build Back Better Act.

In addition, Manchin, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, makes nearly $500,000 per year—roughly three times his congressional salary—from investments in his family's coal empire, raking in a total of $5.2 million since joining the Senate in 2010 while refusing to answer questions about it.

Moreover, the West Virginia Democrat is Congress' top recipient of oil and gas donations this election cycle. He accepted $400,000 from fossil fuel industry PACs and executives in the last quarter alone before axing the CEPP and is now trying to undermine a fee on methane emissions, exemplifying why an ExxonMobil lobbyist praised the lawmaker earlier this year.

Manchin's self-interested effort to torpedo policies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and promote renewable energy persists even as the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency threatens his constituents with the worst flood risks in the nation.

Meanwhile, as he attempts to dilute the Build Back Better Act's proposed green public spending as much as possible, Manchin has been pushing to enact the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a widely criticized bill containing $25 billion in potential fossil fuel subsidies as well as $11.3 billion in funding that would benefit his family's coal brokerage.

"If Congress isn't going to rein in oil and gas climate pollution, President Biden must use the full power of his office to move us back from the brink of climate catastrophe."

Invoking a term used by Manchin when he derided the Build Back Better Act's original top-line spending level of $3.5 trillion over 10 years and called for slashing it by as much as half or more, climate scientist Jessica Moerman argued in a recent CNN opinion piece that what's really "reckless" is climate inaction.

"The true insanity," she wrote, "is ignoring the brutal fiscal reality that our nation will face if we don't make serious investments now to stave off the worst of global warming and make American communities and the economy resilient to climate-fueled extreme weather."

"As anyone with a leaky roof will tell you, making sufficient investments early on is key to avoiding catastrophic costs down the line," Moerman added. "Looking at the dollars and cents, it's clear our failure to advance strategies to eliminate planet-warming carbon emissions... isn't only a future problem but one that's already costing us trillions."

In a new essay in The Nation, journalist and author John Nichols pointed out the likely political consequences of failing to act on the climate crisis.

"If Democrats want to avoid the sort of midterm losses they experienced in 1994 and 2010, they have to keep young voters engaged and turning out," Nichols tweeted. "That won't happen if Democrats bow to Joe Manchin's burn-the-planet demands."

Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, said Tuesday in a statement that "if Congress isn't going to rein in oil and gas climate pollution, President Biden must use the full power of his office to move us back from the brink of climate catastrophe. That means directing his EPA to introduce strong methane rules and declaring a climate emergency."

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