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How a Biden-baked ‘permitting’ deal undermines his own climate promises

Joe Biden
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden hands the pen he used to sign the Democrats’ landmark climate change and health care bill to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., watches in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

The two of us may live thousands of miles apart but have much in common. As people whose communities are being devastated by fossil fuels, we have seen firsthand how our addiction to fossil fuels is driving local and global crises. We also see how we can come together in global solidarity against big polluters. 

In southwest Virginia, the beautiful terrain of mountains, highlands and caves store some of the cleanest water anywhere in the world. These local reservoirs are groundwater sources, and families, livestock, crops, wild plants and animals rely on this water to survive. But the water — and people’s way of life — could be threatened by the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project championed by Democrat Sen. Joe Machin of West Virginia. This may seem like uniquely local problem, but it is tied to an issue that has global repercussions — and that needs attention and solutions at the highest levels of government.  

At the UN climate summit COP27, which recently concluded, President Biden touted his administration’s accomplishments in the fight against climate change, including the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), promising the global community that the U.S. will “renew and raise” its climate ambitions to meet emissions targets by 2030. The IRA includes historic investments to fight climate change, yet still falls short of meeting Biden’s domestic emissions targets and our Paris Agreement commitments.   

What Biden did not tout, however, is the side deal struck between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Manchin for so-called “permitting reform” legislation, to secure Manchin’s vote in order to pass the IRA. Publicly backed by Biden, Manchin’s plan would’ve undone the IRA’s climate benefits by fast tracking fossil fuel projects — harming communities and taking us farther away from meeting our international commitments. Manchin’s earlier attempt to squeeze his “permitting reforms” into a continuing resolution for federal funding failed in September. Manchin has revived his effort, this time hoping to pin his plan to must-pass legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

It’s not hard to figure out where Manchin’s loyalties lie — he received nearly $928,616 from the oil and gas industry from 2017 to 2022.

If passed, his dirty side deal will fast track oil, gas and mining projects. In fact, nearly 70 percent of the projects qualifying for expeditated permitting and weakened environmental reviews are extractives projects, known to have devasting environmental and climate impacts. And Manchin’s pet project — the Mountain Valley Pipeline long contested by environmental justice groups — would likely be prioritized.  

Manchin’s “reforms” would also gut the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act, two bedrock environmental laws that are global models and secure a strong standard for environmental impact assessments. Communities at the frontline of extraction rely on NEPA in particular, as it requires a minimum standard for communities to be informed and consulted about such projects and provides an avenue for redress when projects do not meet environmental or safety standards.  

Keeping the U.S. hooked on fossil fuels and removing protections for frontline communities is a direct contradiction of Biden’s climate promises that will keep the world on a dangerous path toward global warming. In fact, analysis shows that speeding up permits for the oil and gas projects that would benefit from this deal would be the equivalent of 665 million tons of CO2 per year. While this will be devastating for all of us, there will higher consequences for those who have actually contributed least to the climate crisis.  

Nearly 4,000 miles away from the White House, communities across Latin America are seeing increasingly devastating droughts and flooding and other extreme weather events that are exacerbating hunger, destroying livelihoods and driving disease. In the face of climate crises, we see deepening inequality and abuses of human rights against Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant populations, as well as rural and marginalized communities. 

While solving the climate crisis is the collective effort of our lifetime, the U.S. has a bigger responsibility to the global community as one of the largest emitters of carbon pollution. We must build a clean energy future with those most impacted by climate and environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry, not by undermining bedrock environmental laws that have protected communities for decades.  

We should be strengthening laws and global commitments to ensure that climate, environmental and human rights needs are better incorporated in decision making and that those most affected have more say in the projects that will impact them. We should invest in community-supported solutions and fund agencies so that they have the ability to do their jobs, ensuring that tools like NEPA, in the U.S., can support the building of projects that reflect the world we want to see.  

At the very least, we should not accept so-called reforms that sinks the benefits of renewables by limiting their development to the approval of the very fuels destroying our planet and harming communities in the U.S. and around the world. From Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia to the Altiplano of Bolivia, we urge the Biden administration to make good on its climate justice commitments and reject Manchin’s dirty deal. 

Russell Chisholm is coordinator of the pipeline construction monitoring Mountain Valley Watch project, documenting and reporting potential violations of environmental law and holding regulators accountable to impact.

Carlos Aguilar is the regional lead on climate justice for Oxfam in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has worked in various countries throughout Latin America, Europe and Africa in the analysis and development of policies for the promotion of human rights and the fight against inequality, as well as climate change.

Tags Biden biden administration Chuck Schumer Climate change climate promises Energy Manchin-Schumer deal permitting reform
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