May 30, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Why the debt bill's energy provisions are a BFD

Illustration of legislation being pierced with fountain pens.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The debt ceiling deal is a monument to the messiness of a divided government — and it might cast a shadow over climate politics in 2024.

🏃🏽‍♀️Catch up fast: The tentative compromise between the White House and GOP leaders includes...

  • Approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a major gas project in Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Efforts to speed permitting via new deadlines for environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, and some other changes.
  • A new study of boosting regional power transmission capabilities.

State of play: Groups on the left and allied Democratic lawmakers are furious over MVP, and what some activists call weakening of NEPA.

  • The Sierra Club called for rejection, while the Center for Biological Diversity's Jean Su said President Biden made a "colossal error" on climate.
  • Others had softer takes. Groups like the League of Conservation Voters, which have close ties to Democratic leaders, bashed the energy provisions but didn't urge votes against the debt package.

🗳️What we're watching: The political fallout.

  • It's one of several times the White House has recently angered climate activists over fossil fuel projects or policy, notably the March approval of ConocoPhillips' Willow oil project in Alaska.
  • Activists want a much harder line against fossil fuels. But it's tough to know whether their disappointment will cost Biden more than a relative handful of climate-minded voters in 2024.

Also in the political mix: MVP is a win for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). He faces a tough race next year — if he runs — in his conservative state.

Yes, but: The White House is defending the debt ceiling plan in sales pitches to Capitol Hill Democrats and comments to reporters.

  • Officials emphasize it omits GOP proposals to revoke climate law incentives.
  • They say it preserves NEPA's strength while making it easier to build climate-friendly infrastructure like wind and solar projects.
  • The American Clean Power Association blessed the deal, but called it only a "down payment" on permitting and transmission needs.

The other side: Republicans face challenges preventing too many defections among conservatives, who say the deal fails to meaningfully restrain spending.

  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's wider pitch includes touting the "first significant reforms to the environmental review process in more than 40 years."
  • The American Exploration and Production Council, an oil and gas industry group, urged passage, too, praising the NEPA and MVP provisions.

What's next: Votes in Congress are expected this week as the clock ticks toward the June 5 default date.

  • Further down the road, there could be efforts to reach a more sweeping deal on energy permitting.
  • But the hurdles are high when there's no forcing mechanism like, say, the threat of an economically catastrophic default.

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