Democrats try to salvage Manchin’s deal on energy permitting reform


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The push by Sen. Joe Manchin III to overhaul the nation’s permitting process for infrastructure projects could get some last-ditch help from the House of Representatives, in its annual defense policy measure, according to two people familiar with the matter.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been in talks with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) about attaching a version of Manchin’s permitting bill to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), according to the two individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

New text of the defense bill that includes the permitting bill could be released Monday before the House Rules Committee considers the measure, the people said, although they cautioned that the plans were in flux and subject to change.

Spokespeople for Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pelosi did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The effort to salvage Manchin’s permitting reform crusade is the latest attempt by Democrats to honor a deal with the West Virginia senator that secured his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping climate, energy and health-care law that President Biden signed in August. Manchin insisted on a follow-up permitting bill as part of the deal, part of his long quest to speed up America’s permitting process for energy infrastructure, including the contested Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport natural gas about 300 miles from his home state of West Virginia to Virginia.

Democrats’ side deal with Manchin would speed up projects, West Virginia gas

But liberal House Democrats objected to the permitting bill, saying it could undermine bedrock environmental laws, while Republicans complained that they were not consulted, even though permitting reform is a longtime conservative priority.

Several Senate Republicans are likely to oppose the inclusion of the permitting bill in the NDAA, according to the people familiar with the matter, meaning the passage of Manchin’s measure is hardly guaranteed.

It’s unclear whether Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to join the GOP opposition. Doing so could slow the passage of the defense bill, a top priority for the senator before he retires next month.

In the House, meanwhile, Republicans are set to take control of the chamber in January after winning a narrow majority in November’s midterm elections. House GOP lawmakers might also prefer to negotiate a permitting bill in the new Congress, when they would have more leverage over the discussions.

In September, Manchin unveiled the initial text of the permitting bill, dubbed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022. The initial version would set a two-year time limit for reviews of major projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law governing the construction of pipelines, highways and other projects. It also would direct federal agencies to “take all necessary actions” to issue new permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been delayed by legal setbacks.

Two weeks earlier, more than 70 House Democrats had sent a letter to Pelosi voicing opposition to including the permitting measure in any must-pass legislation. Led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), the Democrats warned that the permitting bill would weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, undermining efforts by disadvantaged communities to push back against polluting projects in their backyards.

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By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats have argued that Manchin’s permitting bill would expedite the construction of clean energy projects and the transmission lines needed to carry their power to urban centers.

A Schumer spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After leading the House Democratic caucus for the past 20 years, Pelosi, 82, is set to hand the reins to a younger generation of liberal leaders. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), 52, was elected last week to serve as the top House Democrat starting in January, becoming the first Black lawmaker to lead a party caucus in congressional history.

Raul Garcia, legislative director at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, called on Pelosi to build on her pro-environment legacy in her final weeks as speaker, pointing to her role in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, which represented the biggest climate investment in U.S. history.

“We want to make sure that in her last weeks, environmental justice leaders don’t feel betrayed,” Garcia said in a phone interview Sunday.

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