In a Climate Trade-Off, Biden Backs Manchin’s Fossil Fuel Plan

The White House on Wednesday endorsed a plan by Senator Joe Manchin III to speed the approval of some fossil fuel projects in order to also hasten the construction of new transmission lines critical for meeting President Biden’s climate goals.

John Podesta, President Biden’s senior adviser for clean energy innovation, said the holdup in congressional efforts to streamline permitting rules for energy projects, a process that can drag on for years, has hurt efforts to bolster wind, solar and other clean power.

“Right now, the permitting process for clean energy infrastructure, including transmission, is plagued by delays and bottlenecks,” Mr. Podesta told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank based in Washington. “We’ve got to fix this problem now.”

The White House’s announcement drew swift opposition from many environmental groups, which are still seething over the administration’s support of the Willow oil project in Alaska. 

In backing the plan by Mr. Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who is a strong supporter of coal and gas, Mr. Podesta stressed that the senator played a crucial role last year in passing Mr. Biden’s signature climate law with $370 billion in clean energy tax incentives.

Mr. Manchin’s permitting plan would assure the completion of a long-delayed gas pipeline in West Virginia, the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Environmentalists, civil rights activists and many Democratic state lawmakers have opposed the project for years.

“The president frankly doesn’t love everything in the bill, but we support it because that’s what compromise means,” Mr. Podesta said.

The olive branch came amid tense negotiations between the Mr. Biden and the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, over raising the debt ceiling before a June 1 deadline, after which the U.S. government could default.

As conditions for lifting the borrowing cap, House Republicans have sought clean energy spending cuts and a permitting overhaul that prioritizes fossil fuel development. Mr. Biden has insisted that lawmakers must raise the cap with no conditions attached.

A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy said in a statement that the Republican permitting plan linked to the debt ceiling package “would get our economy back on track, lower costs and streamline production of clean, affordable American energy.”

Mr. Manchin on Wednesday sidestepped questions of whether to insert a permitting overhaul into a vote on the debt ceiling, saying, “Wherever we can get permitting reform, I’ll do it.”

In addition to fast-tracking the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would run from West Virginia to Virginia, Mr. Manchin’s bill sets a two-year limit on environmental reviews of major federal energy projects, including those on fossil fuels. It also directs the president to designate at least 25 high-level energy projects and prioritize their permitting.

Mr. Manchin noted Wednesday that, despite some opposition, his permitting proposal was the only one that has bipartisan support.

“Just sitting down negotiating is what needs to be done now,” he said.

The White House on Wednesday also issued an order directing agencies to ease the siting and permitting of interstate transmission lines until legislation is passed.

It also listed 11 priorities that Mr. Biden wants in a new permitting law, including helping clean energy projects like wind and solar get on the grid faster and setting new goals for renewable energy development on federal lands. In addition, the White House urged new hydrogen and carbon dioxide infrastructure development, elimination of duplicative environmental reviews and improved community engagement.

Some environmental groups assailed the administration’s announcement, saying Mr. Manchin’s bill would lead to more oil and gas development even as scientists say the window to reduce emissions from fossil fuels is rapidly closing.

Mr. Biden has vowed to help limit total global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial temperatures. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic impacts increase significantly. But the International Energy Agency has warned that goal can’t be reached if countries continue to approve new fossil fuel development.

During his appearance at the Washington think tank, Mr. Podesta chided environmental groups that often sue to block new facilities. He said those efforts threatened to hurt progress on tackling climate change.

“We got so good at stopping projects that we forgot how to build,” said Mr. Podesta, who, as an environmental leader, founded the Center for American Progress.

“It’s shameful that John Podesta is mindlessly parroting the fossil fuel playbook and scapegoating frontline communities that are harmed the most by fossil fuels as somehow being the enemy of a renewable energy future,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The group was one of nearly 300 environmental organizations that sent a letter to Mr. Biden and congressional Democratic leaders urging them to reject Mr. Manchin’s plan, saying that although it would “marginally” help the development of renewable energy, it would be “massively dwarfed” by expedited oil and gas projects.

Other groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the White House’s priorities but said they remained opposed to Mr. Manchin’s plan.

Clean-energy organizations said their industries were counting on fast action by Congress.

“The expansion and modernization of our national power grid is central to meeting our urgent climate and energy security goals,” said Gregory Wetstone, the president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a trade group.

Mr. Podesta said the White House, while seeking compromise with Republicans, had one red line: “No more climate denial.” Several Republican efforts to fast-track infrastructure would allow agencies to disregard climate change when assessing the environmental impacts of new projects. “No more looking the other way,” Mr. Podesta said.

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