BLACKSBURG, Va. — After years of spirited opposition from environmental activists, the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a 304-mile gas pipeline cutting through the Appalachian Mountains — was behind schedule, over budget and beset with lawsuits. As recently as February, one of its developers, NextEra Energy, warned that the many legal and regulatory obstacles meant there was “a very low probability of pipeline completion.”
Then came Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and his hold on the Democrats’ climate agenda.
Manchin’s recent surprise agreement to back the Biden administration’s historic climate legislation came about in part because the senator was promised something in return: not only support for the pipeline in his home state, but also expedited approval for pipelines and other infrastructure nationwide, as part of a wider set of concessions to fossil fuels.
It was a big win for a pipeline industry that, in recent years, has quietly become one of Manchin’s biggest financial supporters.
Natural gas pipeline companies have dramatically increased their contributions to Manchin, from just $20,000 in 2020 to more than $331,000 so far this election cycle, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission and tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics. Manchin has been by far Congress’ largest recipient of money from natural gas pipeline companies this cycle, raising three times more from the industry than any other lawmaker.
NextEra Energy, a utility giant and stakeholder in the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is a top donor to both Manchin and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who negotiated the pipeline side deal with Manchin. Schumer has received more than $281,000 from NextEra this election cycle, the data shows. Equitrans Midstream, which owns the largest stake in the pipeline, has given more than $10,000 to Manchin. The pipeline and its owners have also spent heavily to lobby Congress.
The disclosures point to the extraordinary behind-the-scenes spending and deal-making by the fossil fuel industry that have shaped a climate bill that nevertheless stands to be transformational. The final reconciliation package, which cleared the Senate on Sunday, would allocate more than $370 billion to climate and energy policies, including support for cleaner technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, and puts the United States on track to reduce its emissions of planet-warming gases by roughly 40% below 2005 levels by the decade’s end.
A spokesperson for Manchin said the Mountain Valley Pipeline “will help bring down energy costs, shore up American energy security and create jobs in West Virginia.” An official in Schumer’s office said the pipeline deal “was only included at the insistence of Sen. Manchin as part of any agreement related to this reconciliation bill.”
Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for Equitrans, said the company maintained a “high standard of integrity” while engaging with policymakers. She declined to say whether Equitrans had pressed either senator on the pipeline. NextEra Energy, which also develops renewable projects across the country and stands to benefit widely from the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite concessions such as the pipeline deal, major environmental groups as well as progressives in Congress have praised the legislation. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the country to enact meaningful climate legislation.
But in Appalachia, where the Mountain Valley Pipeline cuts through steep mountainsides and nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands, the deal has highlighted the economic and social tensions in a region where extractive industries over the generations have produced jobs in coal mines and on fracking rigs but have also left behind deep scars on the land and in communities.
For years, environmental and civil rights activists as well as many Democratic state lawmakers have opposed the pipeline project, which would carry more than 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day out of the Marcellus Shale fields in West Virginia and through southern Virginia. Construction on the pipeline was supposed to be complete by 2018, but environmental groups have successfully challenged a series of federal permits in court, where judges have found the pipeline developers’ analyses about the effects on wildlife, sedimentation and erosion lacking.
The pipeline deal means Appalachia is again becoming a “sacrifice zone” for the greater good, said Russell Chisholm, a Persian Gulf War veteran and a member of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, a coalition of groups that oppose construction.
He was visiting Friday with a neighbor, Jammie Hale, who held up a jar of cloudy tap water. It was thick with sediment that Hale suspected had been dislodged by construction along the pipeline’s route, which runs alongside his property near Virginia’s border with West Virginia. Both men have clashed with police at protests. They spoke beneath an American flag that Hale had hung upside down ever since workers started laying down pipe.
“If working people, poor people reaped the benefits, this bill could really help,” Chisholm said. “But it’s all beyond us, because it turns out they’ve been negotiating behind the scenes. It turns out the pipeline was on the negotiating table, and we weren’t at that table.
“There’s a tendency to write off our region as a red state that got what was coming to them.”
The concerns in Appalachia underscore the real-world fallout of the Democrats’ concessions to fossil fuels. The climate bill requires the federal government to auction off more public lands and waters for oil drilling as a prerequisite for more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. It expands tax credits for carbon capture technology that could allow coal- or gas-burning power plants to keep operating with reduced emissions. Manchin has also secured pledges for a follow-up bill that would make it easier to greenlight energy infrastructure projects and make it tougher to oppose such projects under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
Those provisions could encourage further construction of pipelines, gas-burning power plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure to the detriment of low-income neighborhoods, which already disproportionately host these industries and often have fewer resources to negotiate with developers.
“People like me who are just trying to survive don’t have the time to attend hearings and meetings,” said Crystal Mello, who has cleaned homes for a living in southwest Virginia for two decades. She listened in on local hearings on her earbuds as she swept floors, and found whatever time she could to support “sit-ins” in trees in nearby Elliston to stop pipeline workers from felling them. She is now a community organizer even as she continues to clean houses.
“These mountains are meant to have trees protecting them,” she said. “People are saying this is a good deal, but at what cost?”
The concessions to natural gas pipelines come amid what has been a dramatic turnaround in the industry’s fortunes. For years, a glut of natural gas had depressed prices, and the coronavirus pandemic further cut demand. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the U.S. economic rebound, has pushed prices higher.
As a result, natural gas pipelines and export terminals have become a key growth opportunity as Europe looks for ways to wean itself from Russian gas. And even as the United States takes steps to add more renewable sources of energy, natural gas and oil remain the bedrock of the U.S. economy, and much of that fuel moves around the country through pipelines.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, has said the pipeline should be finished and has called on the Biden administration to encompass all forms of energy. “This country needs to be totally energy independent,” he said at a briefing in February. “Without any question, if it were, we would feel better, stronger and better off.” Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has also said the pipeline is vital to his state.
Supporters point to other benefits that the legislation would bring to West Virginia. It would cement a federal trust fund to support coal miners who have black lung disease, for example, and offer incentives for building wind and solar farms in areas where coal mines or coal plants recently closed.
“If you look to the future, it’s going to help,” David Owens, a retired local firefighter, said after he had filled up his SUV outside Blacksburg. Pipeline opponents were only “delaying the inevitable,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”
It remains unclear precisely how Manchin’s pipeline deal will work. According to terms released by Manchin, the agreement requires federal agencies to take “all necessary actions” to permit the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s construction and operation. The terms of the agreement, which would be included in the follow-up bill, would also give the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit jurisdiction over all future legal challenges, rather than keep that authority with the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, where environmentalists had found success.
The 4th Circuit has overturned permits issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, saying that their analyses about adverse effects on wildlife, sedimentation and erosion were flawed. The pipeline project has particularly struggled to get approval to cross streams or wetlands in a part of the country with so many of them.
Joseph Lovett, an attorney at the legal nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates who is fighting the pipeline, said any change in legal jurisdiction mandated by Congress “was ridiculous.”
“We’re a nation of laws. The powerful people don’t have the right to choose judges,” he said, adding, “If rich people can pay to get a better day in court, that’s just corruption.”
Manchin has made clear his view that fossil fuels will continue to be necessary. He became a millionaire from his family coal business and has taken more campaign cash from the oil and gas industry than any of his colleagues have.
Manchin has attracted more contributions in part because he is chair of the Senate energy committee. Major pipeline companies that have made contributions include Enterprise Products Partners, Energy Transfer LP, Plains All American Pipeline and Williams Cos.
David Seriff, who has long opposed the pipeline, looked out Saturday from Brush Mountain, where the pipeline would cross a half-mile from his home. With construction stalled, sections of the thick pipe have laid exposed on the ground for years. “I don’t come out here much anymore because I hate to see this,” he said.
Seriff said he was encouraged by Congress’ action on climate. “But the Democrats and people who say they’re environmentalists are ready to build the pipeline, too,” he said.