The West Virginia senator has agreed to support climate action, but only after ensuring his home state would remain a fossil fuel fiefdom
For most people who care about the future of human civilization, last week was a very good week. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin quit dicking around and announced that he would support a $369 billion climate/energy deal (AKA the Inflation Reduction Act) was the best news anyone in who cares about the fate of the planet had heard in a very long time. “Holy shit,” Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota tweeted. “Stunned, but in a good way.” Among other things, it would put the US on track to cut climate pollution by 40 percent by 2030, which is within shouting range of the 50 percent reduction President Biden had committed to last year. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer told Manchin the deal would be “historic for our country.”
Maria Gunnoe, director of the Mother Jones Community Foundation and a long-time West Virginia coal warrior who has learned from experience that Manchin has far more love for his yacht than for the people of the southern coal fields, had a different reaction. “My first thought was, ‘What’s he up to?’” Gunnoe told me over the weekend. “Joe Manchin has taught me to not trust him.”
And indeed, she was right. As part of the price for getting on board with the climate deal, it’s now clear that Manchin wants a side deal to “streamline” the permitting process for big infrastructure projects like pipelines and coal mines and chemical plants in his home state. It’s not just a bad idea for the climate, it perpetuates the notion that Appalachia is a landscape that God created to be mined, blasted, and burned. For the last 30 years, since the age of mountaintop removal mining began, West Virginia activists have called the southern coal fields “a national sacrifice zone” to America’s insanely destructive appetite for coal and gas. And it’s true. The mountains have been blasted, the creeks filled in, arsenic poisons the soil, and big coal impoundments – man-made lakes the coal companies use to wash the coal after it is mined – loom above the narrow hollows. After 100 years of digging coal and fracking for gas, much of Appalachia remains poor and broken and vulnerable.
On the face of it, streamlining permitting is an excellent and much-needed step in the right direction. Solar panels, wind turbines, transmission towers – they are all vital to the clean energy transformation. And they all need to go through a permitting process that can, in some cases, take a decade. If America is going to get serious about cutting emission, getting a lot of new shit built quickly is vitally important.
But that is not what is going to happen in the coalfields of Appalachia.
The “stream-lining” of permitting is just Washington-speak for letting coal and gas companies continue doing whatever they want. In this sense, Manchin’s real goal in this permitting deal is not to help renewable energy companies site new solar panels, or electric vehicle manufacturers get approval to build a new factory that will jumpstart a new energy economy in Appalachia. It’s to lock in the infrastructure for another generation of fossil fuel production in Appalachia. It’s a gambit to make sure the fat cats who hang out at The Greenbriar squeeze every last buck out of the state before they fade out into oblivion. That’s the endgame strategy for the fossil fuel industry pretty much everywhere, but it’s particularly naked and obscene in Appalachia, where people have already suffered so much and for so long.
Exhibit A in Manchin’s dreams of keeping West Virginia a fossil fuel baron’s playgroud: the six billion dollar, 300 mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline that will carry fracked gas from West Virginia to Virginia. According to a one-page summary obtained by the Washington Post, the permitting agreement “would set new two-year limits, or maximum timelines, for environmental reviews for ‘major’ projects.” That’s all well and good. But according to the Post, central goal of the deal would be to clear the way for the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is Manchin’s pet project. The deal would also require jurisdiction of the cases involving the pipeline away from the Fourth District, where environmentalists have found success. Specifically, the bill would require “relevant agencies” to “take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the D.C. Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.”
In other words, the deal says we’re going to do everything we can to make sure the Mountain Valley Pipeline gets built.
“We need the scale of investment in the IRA to accelerate clean energy and climate solutions fast enough,” says Abbie Dillen, the President of Earthjustice. “It is extremely damaging to pair these investments with fossil fuels giveaways. It’s a devil’s bargain that will make it even harder for communities in the Gulf South and Appalachia to create new, healthy economies.”
What makes this attempt to ram the pipeline through so damning is that it’s yet another example of the fossil fuel industry failing to hold its own in the rapidly-changing energy market and relying, as it has for many years now, on favors from paid-off politicians and good ‘ol boys.
“Mountain Valley Pipeline is on life support,” argues James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law and the author of the new book The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution “I’m not sure the economics support completion of the pipeline – with states adopting clean energy goals and utilities phasing out the use of natural gas for space and water heating in favor of electric heat pumps and electric water heaters, who is going to buy it? The investment is going to be stranded, and we don’t need to be locking in 30 years of additional infrastructure investment in natural gas.”
And as Van Nostrand points out, there’s a reason the pipeline has been delayed. “The developers have been repeatedly violating the Clean Water Act, and pushing state regulators to issue permits that shouldn’t have been issued,” he explains. “The only way MVP gets built is to change the rules and exempt MVP from the environmental scrutiny that would otherwise apply, which is horrible environmental (and legislative) policy.”
It’s also horrible climate policy. One analysis estimates the pipeline, which is now only abut 55% complete, would generate 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equal to 26 new coal-fired power plants or 19 million passenger vehicles. The pipeline’s current route would carry gas across around 1,000 streams and wetlands on its path from West Virginia to Virginia.
“The Mountain Valley Pipeline is bad for the climate, bad for communities, all for the sake of gas we don’t need,” says Patrick Grenter, the deputy director of the Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign at Sierra Club. “The last thing we should be doing is forcing it through.”
The pipeline is just the most high-profile fossil fuel project waiting in the wings in Appalachia. There are more gas fields to frack, more coal to mine. And there are things like chemical plants that need a pliant permitting process to get built. “The fossil fuel industry rigged this permitting deal it’s favor,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “These environmental laws are the only thing standing between a really brutal industry and people who live in vulnerable communities.”
For Gunnoe, all this was underscored by the devastating floods last week in eastern Kentucky, where between 8 and 10 1/2 inches of rain over 48 hours caused record flooding on Kentucky River. So far, the 35 people are known to have died, with hundreds more missing.
The floods in Kentucky were not a “natural” disaster. They were a deadly combination of intense rainfall driven by a superheated atmosphere (warm air holds more water than cooler air) and the strip-mined mountains that, as Kentucky activist Teri Blanton tweeted, allow water to run off them like water “running off a Walmart parking lot.”
“These floods are man-made and Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell know it,” Gunnoe told me bluntly.
For many activists I talked to in West Virginia, a complex moral calculation is playing out right now: on one hand, joy that a historic climate deal is in reach. On the other, fear that the cost to Appalachia will be too high.
Right now, the permitting deal is still just a handshake between Manchin, Schumer, and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. First, the climate deal itself has to get done – and that’s far from a slam dunk. On the permitting side deal, there is still lots of time to fight it and ensure that it does not turn into a blank check for fossil fuel developers.
Gunnoe is justifiably worried that, the celebration of this historic legislation and the activism that helped make it happen, the people of West Virginia coal country will once again be left behind.
“For 30 years I’ve fought for climate action from ground zero of coal extraction,” Gunnoe says. “West Virginians have literally begged for clean water, clean air, and sustainable jobs with dignity. We have begged for an end to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and safe working conditions for the miners with retirement and pensions that are guaranteed. We stood up a long time ago and begged others to stand with us. The people of Appalachia are owed a future that we don’t currently have. Everyone at the table of climate discussion should remember that.”