The debt ceiling deal bulldozes a controversial pipeline's path through the courts
Updated June 1, 2023 at 8:03 AM ET
The controversial natural gas pipeline has been stalled by court challenges — but now the Mountain Valley Pipeline has new momentum, thanks to a debt ceiling deal that gives sweeping approvals to the project.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act orders expedited approval of all permits needed to complete the pipeline, which has been opposed by climate and conservation groups as well as local residents along its path. Backers of the plan say it would boost U.S. energy infrastructure and jobs in Appalachia and the Southeast.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline would stretch 303 miles, from West Virginia to North Carolina. But it would cut through the Jefferson National Forest and cross hundreds of waterways and wetlands — and legal battles have held up those crucial sections of the pipeline have been held up for years.
In an extraordinary move, the federal measure would also quash lawsuits against the pipeline project and send any new appeals to the D.C. Circuit rather than the Fourth Circuit, which has regional jurisdiction and which has blocked numerous permits.
The House approved the legislation Wednesday; it now heads to the Senate.
Here's a quick recap of where things stand with the pipeline:
Pipeline approval would fulfill Biden's promise to Manchin
The Fiscal Responsibility Act devotes fewer pages to the debt ceiling than it does to the pipeline, a longtime cause for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who holds a critical vote in a closely divided Senate — and Republicans from his state.
Manchin receives three times as much money from pipeline companies as any other member of Congress, according to Open Secrets.
Last year, Manchin secured a promise from the Biden administration to fast-track the pipeline's completion in exchange for his support of President Biden's climate spending bill.
The Equitrans Midstream Corporation, which is managing the pipeline's development and would operate it, recently told shareholders it would likely get all permits approved and have the pipeline ready for operation by the end of 2023, with a total cost of some $6.6 billion.
Manchin says the pipeline also means big money for his state.
"I've been told it's about $40 million a year in tax revenues to the state of West Virginia," he said, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "And about $300 million a year in revenue to the royalty owners."
The act shifts legal jurisdiction for court approval
When Manchin brokered the 2022 deal with the White House, his office said it planned to "give the D.C. Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation," rather than the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., where judges have repeatedly ruled against the pipeline.
The debt ceiling deal would fulfill that plan. The act states, "no court shall have jurisdiction to review any action taken by the Secretary of the Army, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Interior," or any state agency, if the action authorizes or permits building and operating the pipeline at full capacity.
The legislation also says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit "shall have original and exclusive jurisdiction over any claim alleging the invalidity of this section or that an action is beyond the scope of authority conferred by this section."
Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, who led Republicans' negotiations with the White House over the debt ceiling, called the deal a GOP victory, saying Democrats are now on the record "supporting a conventional energy project that removes or ties the hands of the judiciary," according to The Washington Post, citing a conference call with reporters.
Climate groups say pipeline isn't needed and is harmful
By approving the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Congress would declare that "the timely completion of construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is required in the national interest."
The American Exploration and Production Council, a lobbying group for oil and gas producers, hailed the deal, with CEO Anne Bradbury saying in an email to NPR that by approving the pipeline and promising changes to the permitting system, a bureaucratic process will become more streamlined.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council disagrees, saying the new deal would remove key avenues for legal and environmental review. It also says that much of the official narrative about the pipeline is false — despite claims by Manchin and others, the group says, the pipeline isn't needed and still faces important legal hurdles.
The League of Conservation Voters is also against the pipeline's inclusion in the debt deal. In an email to NPR, the group's Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs, said that by forcing approval of the pipeline, the debt deal "locks in decades of climate pollution, threatens water quality, and jeopardizes communities in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, especially low-income, elderly, Indigenous, and Black communities."
The debt deal has critics on the left and right
Some of the most conservative House members are furious with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the the debt ceiling deal, saying it gives Democrats too many concessions and doesn't go far enough in reaching Republican goals.
Some progressive Democrats are also unhappy, saying the Biden administration isn't delivering on its promises to support clean energy rather than fossil fuels, along with allowing cuts or restrictions to food programs and other assistance for vulnerable Americans.
Critics are also asking why the debt deal legislation, which runs to 99 pages, devotes so much space to other matters, like revamping the federal permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
When asked about those concerns, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young said on Tuesday, "I've worked in many divided government situations. I think this is where you would expect a bipartisan agreement to land. It's just the reality."
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