Connie Fitzsimmons of Blacksburg, VA, demonstrates with Appalachian and Indigenous climate advocates against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project approved as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in Washington, D.C. on September 08, 2022. (Photo: Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Democrats Tried to Sell Appalachia Down the Pipeline

How Manchin's permitting reform bill almost got passed and a new pipeline was nearly fast-tracked.

In late September, the now-familiar "debt ceiling showdown" was avoided when Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., pulled his permitting reform legislation from the stopgap spending bill because it did not have the votes. Not only was a government shutdown avoided, but this was also a near-miss for anyone who cares about the future of our planet, as the senator's legislation would have fast-tracked the construction of a new natural gas pipeline through the mountains and rivers of Appalachia.

It is concerning when members of both political parties continue to provide lifelines to the fossil fuel industry rather than focus on the immediate and future well-being of the citizens they are supposed to represent.

Make no mistake, this development is a huge win for the people of Appalachia. We were listened to, for once, and our representatives in Congress fought for the future of our region.

This close call, however, revealed there are select Democrats in Congress who are willing to sell the people of Appalachia down the proverbial river when they get desperate to make a deal. But this bill is not dead yet, and now is not the time to get complacent.

The last-minute drama around the Continuing Resolution (CR) began with the "Inflation Reduction Act," which President Biden signed into law in August. The legislation has been described as the most ambitious action ever taken to address climate change. In order to push the legislation through the closely-divided Senate, President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi secured support from Sen. Manchin with a side deal. In exchange for the senator's vote, the Democratic leadership agreed to attach Sen. Manchin's measure that would speed up the permitting process for new energy projects to the Stopgap Spending Bill. This backroom deal could have come with a significant cost, one that is both familiar and tragic to the people who live in Appalachia. Had it passed, we would be at imminent risk of being saddled with the Mountain Valley Pipe (MVP) that, according to one study, would emit 90 million metric tons of CO2 annually, which equals the emissions from 19 million vehicles. If construction is finished, the MVP would be the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Virginia.

More than 70 Democrats opposed the legislation, saying it would have "serious long-term, environmental, and public health consequences." This so-called permitting "reform" would undermine long-standing environmental law and policy, and emerged out of backroom discussions without the public or the majority of Democrats in the room.

Republicans also opposed the policy, wanting more aggressive permitting legislation, and were eager to deprive Manchin of a big political win. It is concerning that the future of Appalachia is dependent on Republicans' mercurial relationship with Manchin.

The 91-page bill included modifying the Clean Water Act and shortening National Environmental Policy Act timeline, making it easier for fossil fuel and gas infrastructure to be built in the U.S. These reforms would rewrite bedrock environmental legislation, and a shortened process would mean less time for community members to raise concerns. The bill also required the fast-tracking of the MVP.

Constructed on terrain no pipeline in the U.S. has been built on before, the MVP would traverse steep mountains, old-growth forests, sinkholes, caverns, and nearly 1,000 streams, rivers, and lakes in Virginia and West Virginia. The dredging required would risk the unleashing of sediment downstream and threaten aquatic ecosystems and drinking water.

Appalachia's Black and Indigenous communities, along with low-income and rural communities, have been bearing, and stand to bear, a disproportionate amount of the project's environmental side effects. A look at the proposed construction shows the pipeline would run through some of Appalachia's most "socially vulnerable" areas. A proposed extension into North Carolina would traverse through a majority-minority Congressional district and traverse traditional burial mounds of Siouan-speaking tribes, including the Monacan and Occaneechi.

The economics used to justify the pipeline's construction are also questionable. The demand for natural gas has decreased below the rate pipeline sponsors have used as justification for construction. Some projections show that the gas from the pipeline will likely not be any cheaper, and there is a lack of evidence that all of the gas delivered will be purchased and used.

If this pipeline were great for the people of Appalachia, its environment, and its economy, it would have been completed already. Instead, it is four years behind schedule, and delays continue to mount. In February, the U.S Fish and Wildlife permit was revoked by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit due to inadequate analysis of the pipeline's effects on wildlife. The court also denied permits issued by the U.S Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, citing concerns over sediment and erosion, and denied the MVP's request for new judges in June.

With the permits invalidated and the delays costing billions, there was hope that we would not have a new pipeline cutting through our backyards. But then Democratic leaders in Washington made a deal without us in the room.

This is a sign that when communities around the United States bind together and push back on unethical policies, we can win.

This is the real world we live in. Compromise is at the heart of any good legislation. But it is concerning when members of both political parties continue to provide lifelines to the fossil fuel industry rather than focus on the immediate and future well-being of the citizens they are supposed to represent. The planet's climate emergency does not care how hard it is to get bills passed these days.

For those who care about the future of our communities and our planet, we should take this as a warning. This won't be the last time that we will be told to celebrate a one-sided legislative achievement while ignoring the communities that were cut out of the deal.

This is a time for hope and movement. The MVP still must comply with environmental laws already on the books. That gives time for the people of Appalachia to be heard and for those across the country to help us in this fight. Although we do not have President Biden's ear, we can turn attention to the stories of farmers directly affected, of war veterans, construction managers, and doctors sharing concerns, of the tree-sitters, old folks, and grandmas that have led blockades, and mass resistance protests in D.C. There will still be opportunities for the public to weigh in on this project. Organizations like Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR) Coalition are announcing when the public comment periods go live. This pipeline may not be in your backyard, but it will be in someone's, and the fossil fuels will still be consumed on the planet we all share.

At the very least, we, the people of Appalachia, can force Democrats in Congress to be honest about whom they are choosing to sacrifice. And with more sustained energy and focus, we can stop this pipeline for good.

If anything, this is a sign that when communities around the United States bind together and push back on unethical policies, we can win. The fight is not over, the bill is not dead yet, but we can keep fighting until the MVP is. The people of Appalachia could use your alliance.

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