Manchin clashes with fellow Democrats over fossil fuel demands

Centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinMajor climate program likely to be nixed from spending package: reports Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (D-W.Va.) is insisting that natural gas be allowed to have a central role in President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia  Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE’s clean energy agenda, which puts him on a collision course with Democratic lawmakers who worry he will have the power to water down what they see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address climate change.

Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is pushing to have sole jurisdiction in the Senate over the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would provide grants to utilities that increase their share of clean energy sources.

He is flexing his muscle by calling for natural gas to be part of Biden’s clean energy solution even though the House Energy and Commerce Committee specifically excluded natural gas from the clean energy program by defining clean energy as having a carbon intensity of less than 0.10 metric tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

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Asked by The Hill on Thursday whether he would insist on natural gas being part of Biden’s clean energy standard, Manchin said “it has to be.”

“I’m all for all of the above, I’m all for clean energy, but I’m also for producing the amount of energy that we need to make sure that we have reliability and I’m concerned about that,” he said.

Manchin also confirmed what he has communicated to colleagues in recent weeks that he does not think that utilities should be pressured to purchase electricity generated from natural gas produced with carbon capture technology.

“I’d love to have carbon capture — we don’t have the technology because we haven’t really gotten to that point and it’s so darn expensive that it makes it almost improbable,” he added.

That is setting off alarm bells among Democratic senators who want to enact energy reforms that bend the curve of projected global warming down to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a goal set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Natural gas is a terrible global warming gas ... and it has no place in such a program, otherwise it becomes a bill to subsidize fossil fuel when we want to subsidize renewable energy,” said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act Democrats call on White House to explore sharing Moderna technology abroad Lawmakers introduce bill to limit data collection at border crossings MORE (D-Ore.), a leading proponent of putting strong measures in the reconciliation bill to address climate change.

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Merkley said natural gas is acceptable as a clean energy source if it’s paired with carbon capture technology.

Merkley, along with Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle Sen. Whitehouse blasts Alito speech: 'You have fouled your nest, not us' Breyer: Supreme Court 'fallible,' but has served US 'pretty well' MORE (D-R.I.), Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Milestone bill would bar imports linked to forest destruction MORE (D-Hawaii) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Briahna Joy Gray: Proposals favored by Black voters 'first at the chopping block' in spending talks MORE (I-Vt.), say the reconciliation bill must make landmark reforms to address global warming, and environmental policy experts allied with them warn that subsidizing natural gas without carbon capture technology would be counterproductive to that goal.

“The fate of the planet is at stake. Without a strong reconciliation bill there will be no serious effort to cut carbon emissions & transform our energy system away from fossil fuel,” Sanders tweeted Friday.

Whitehouse has warned that progressives will block the reconciliation bill if it doesn’t include strong climate provisions — a goal that would be undermined if the Clean Electricity Performance Program subsidizes natural gas without carbon capture technology.

“At the end of the day, we're going to have a deal and it's going to be good enough on climate or it won't go," he told reporters last month.

Asked if the climate provisions are a red line, Whitehouse responded: “It's pretty red.” 

Earlier this year he warned “there is a significant group of senators in the Democratic caucus who are going to insist that climate measures be robust and real and point toward 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Manchin is also challenging Senate Democratic colleagues over their desire to implement a carbon tax, an idea that has gained momentum in the upper chamber recently.

“Any type of a tax is going to be passed on to the people,” he warned Monday.

“Now if a tax is going to be beneficial to help something and give us more research and development and innovation and technology, it’s something to look at,” he said.

But Manchin said he’s skeptical that a carbon tax will actually spur the innovation of new technologies.

Given progressives’ high hopes for using the reconciliation bill to fight climate change, they were disappointed to hear that Manchin wants to subsidize natural gas under the clean energy program that will be drafted in his committee.

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“This summer we witnessed devastating fires and floods and a landmark IPCC report saying we’re near the point of irreversible warming and climate catastrophe and I think it couldn’t be clearer that we cannot spend one more day continuing to subsidize and continue the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, including gas,” said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director at the Sunrise Movement.

“We said very clearly that gas is not clean. We’re talking about a clean energy performance program, and gas is incredibly warming as a fossil fuel,” she said.

She said Biden ran for president on a bold climate platform and “made very clear his intent and desire to be a historic climate president.”

“Is he going to let Joe Manchin walk all over his agenda?” she asked.

The Sierra Club responded to Manchin by issuing a statement declaring it “opposes government investment in polluting gas plants, which would undermine the climate and public health benefits of the program while saddling consumers with higher energy costs.”

Holly Bender, the senior director of energy campaigns for the Sierra Club, said “it’s vital that any Clean Electricity Performance Program invest in truly clean sources of energy like wind and solar and not perpetuate our dependency on the very dirty fuels that are fueling the crisis we must urgently address.”

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Biden in April announced a goal of reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent by 2030.

The reconciliation bill will attempt to meet his goal through several reforms: clean energy tax credits drafted by the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, the Clean Electricity Performance Program reported by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the establishment of a civilian climate corps, a fee on methane, protection for the Arctic refuge and transit investments.

Manchin has made an aggressive push to control the drafting of Senate language establishing the parameters of the clean electricity program.

In a memorandum of understanding Manchin signed with Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act To Win 2022: Go big on reconciliation and invest in Latinx voters MORE (D-N.Y.) at the end of July, the West Virginia senator demanded that his committee — Energy and Natural Resources — have “sole jurisdiction” over any clean energy standard.

The Clean Electricity Performance Program evolved from a proposed clean energy standard to keep within the Senate’s Byrd Rule, which requires that legislation passed under budget reconciliation have a significant — and nonincidental — budgetary impact.