Debt bill’s pipeline provision puts Democrats in a tight spot

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — A bill to lift the limit on federal borrowing would claw back unspent funding on water, science, tribal, cybersecurity and pollution programs; tweak portions of a long-standing permitting law; and approve a gas pipeline long advocated by West Virginia’s two senators.

Democrats including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who wants to amend the bill by stripping out approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said they were surprised the project was included.

“It affects a whole lot of landowners who are going to have their property taken for it,” Kaine said in an interview. “I think I ought to get an amendment vote.”

The legislation would also authorize a study on how to move electricity between power grids in different regions of the U.S. and limit the page count for environmental reviews of projects, like bridges, roads and mines.

Overall, the bill stops short of the expansive permitting overhaul many lawmakers have sought this Congress. And while passage appears likely, it’s not guaranteed. Some members and environmental groups were infuriated by the inclusion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline language.

It also drew opposition from some Republicans, including Reps. Keith Self of Texas and Nancy Mace of South Carolina.

“It’s not a pipeline bill, it’s a debt ceiling,” Mace, who pledged to vote against the legislation, said in an interview. “I mean, we need a pipeline in South Carolina,” Mace said. “It’s just so typical in Washington of the bull—- that goes on up here.”

House Democrats typically vocal on climate issues, like Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, Mike Quigley of Illinois and Ted Lieu of California, were noncommittal when asked how they will vote on the legislation, which is cued up for a floor vote Wednesday.

“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, an environmental advocacy group that called for a “clean” debt ceiling bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., bracing for a tough reelection campaign if he chooses to run in 2024, has pushed for the 303-mile pipeline, which would run through his home state and into Virginia. Manchin issued a statement Monday after securing language to approve the project in the debt bill.

“I am pleased Speaker McCarthy and his leadership team see the tremendous value in completing the MVP to increase domestic energy production and drive down costs across America and especially in West Virginia,” Manchin said. “I am proud to have fought for this critical project and to have secured the bipartisan support necessary to get it across the finish line.”

Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., said she heard via Twitter the pipeline was included in the bill.

“Democrats have to be the responsible adults in the room, and there’s a lot in that bill we don’t like, so we’ve got a tough decision to make in the next 24 hours,” McClellan said in an interview.

McClellan said courts and agencies should oversee specific projects. “That’s how these projects should be determined. Not Congress saying this, this one ‘yes,’ this one ‘no.’”

North America’s Building Trades Unions, which represents more than 3 million members in construction, backed the bill.

“Our country’s energy future is dependent on both fossil fuels and renewables,” Sean McGarvey, the group’s president, said in a statement.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., a negotiator of the deal, said the permitting provisions would be the first statutory changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, the key federal permitting law, in more than 40 years.

Graves told reporters Tuesday the White House offered approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline during negotiations of the overall legislation. Stock in the company behind the project, Equitrans Midstream Corp., rose 41% in trading Tuesday.

Kaine said members of Congress should not be voting on approval of individual projects, in part because the companies behind a given project can donate directly to members.

Agency work

“That’s why you let an administrative agency do it,” Kaine said, adding that they are suited to hewing to federal laws like the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act. “That’s the right way to do it,” he said. “This isn’t just about building a pipeline. It’s about taking people’s land — using eminent domain to take people’s land. Some of these families have owned this land for generations.”

Kaine did not tell reporters how he would vote.

On May 15, the Forest Service issued a permit for the project to cross the Jefferson National Forest. That approval followed Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm’s letter in April urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “expeditiously” approve the pipeline.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said energy transmission would be included in a follow-up deal after the debt ceiling, the limit on U.S. borrowing to pay its bills, is raised.

McCarthy said during separate conversations with President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., on Saturday that Republicans would work with Democrats on a larger permitting package that will help speed up work on all types of projects.

“We made a commitment that we’re not stopping now,” McCarthy said. “And that would also deal with transmission. It would deal with pipelines and others.”

Republicans also touted the bill’s provisions to accelerate the permitting process and limit environmental reviews under NEPA they said allow energy and infrastructure projects to get approved within one to two years.

“NEPA has grown to just study all these things that don’t have anything to do with the environment, which I would argue has worked against the protection of the environment,” Graves said. “So we’re trying to refocus the scope back on that, on the environmental impacts and making sure we get the best environmental outcomes.”

Under the bill, federal agencies would be allowed to outsource the completion of environmental reviews to the company behind a given project, which in turn may pay a separate consulting firm to complete that work.

The bill would set page limits for environmental assessments and the more complicated environmental impact statements, though the bill does not put a page limit on appendices.

Democrats largely defended the bill as a needed compromise to stave off the economic calamity of a national default, adding that the permitting elements were necessary to get a deal and the core elements of the 2022 climate law remained intact.

“The House Republicans’ proposal sought changes in the law that would have allowed mining companies to store hazardous waste near communities without permits, polluting industries to skirt review under the Clean Air Act, and oil refineries to expose workers and communities to toxic chemicals,” a White House official told reporters Sunday, describing a previous GOP debt ceiling bill offered during negotiations. “None of that is in this agreement.”

Also included in the bill are dozens of sections that would rescind funding that has not been spent from a COVID-19 relief bill and the pandemic and economic stimulus package reached early last Congress.

Money that would be cut includes unallocated funding for trains in the Northeast, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Energy Department’s science office, the Fish and Wildlife Service, international disasters assistance, water grants for the poor in states and within tribal nations and pollution programs at the EPA.