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Manchin rejects offshore drilling ban amid broader standoff over Biden agenda

Democratic plans to restrict new oil and gas development offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge raise red flags for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a crucial swing vote

An airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Democrats are pushing for fossil fuel drilling to end in the area, as well as off the U.S. coasts. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP)

Democratic plans to restrict new oil and gas development off both coasts and in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have emerged as a new flash point in the Build Back Better bill, highlighting the party’s political schism as it tries to advance the massive spending legislation.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a critical swing vote, has rejected a provision that would prohibit all future drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico, according to three people familiar with the matter, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. He also expressed surprise at top Democrats’ decision to include language ending an oil and gas leasing program in the pristine refuge, a longtime priority for party leaders and their environmentalist allies, but he has not indicated whether he will oppose it.

Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, exercises a de facto veto over the $2 trillion climate and social spending plan because it needs all 50 Democrats’ votes to win Senate passage.

A spokeswoman for Manchin declined to comment on the matter. Asked about the senator’s opposition during the White House press briefing Thursday, deputy national climate adviser Ali Zaidi declined to address it or say how it would affect the president’s climate targets.

Manchin’s objection to the proposal comes amid a broader rift between the influential senator and top Democrats over President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which party leaders had hoped to pass by the end of the year. Despite months of negotiations and Democrats’ attempts to shrink the bill’s size to win Manchin’s vote, he has withheld his support and a long list of disagreements remain.

The senator, who earns millions from his family’s waste coal business, succeeded in killing a key piece of Biden’s climate agenda — a $150 billion plan to push power companies toward cleaner energy. He also has targeted measures that would affect the oil and gas industry, objecting to a tax credit for electric cars and a provision that would reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Manchin also criticized the design of the funding measure, arguing that Democrats are relying on funding gimmicks to say their legislation is paid for.

House Democrats’ version of the spending bill included a permanent ban on new offshore drilling — which would not apply to existing leases — as well as language that would end the oil and gas leasing program authorized on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain in the 2017 tax bill.

Senate leaders jettisoned the offshore drilling provision from their version of the bill in light of Manchin’s opposition but have preserved language ending the oil and gas leasing program on the refuge.

Two weeks before President Donald Trump left office, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management auctioned off the right to drill on more than 550,000 acres of the refuge’s coastal plain for $14.4 million. When the leases were later modified, the revenue generated dropped to $12 million. Federal law requires the department hold another lease sale by 2024.

The oil and gas industry has lobbied Manchin to oppose both House proposals.

Manchin has a close rapport with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who used to chair the panel and has made opening the refuge to drilling a top priority. It is not clear whether he will support the ban, but Democratic staffers have been optimistic they can secure his support for the measure.

However, the provision still could be challenged under what is known as the “Byrd Rule,” which seeks to exclude extraneous policy matters from reconciliation and changes that decrease federal revenue. If the Senate parliamentarian agrees that it does not pass muster, the provision would be struck from the bill.

Here's President Biden's environmental agenda

Environmental groups criticized senators’ decision to drop protections against future offshore drilling from the bill.

The current global oil and gas demand does not justify drilling in U.S. coastal waters, they argued, and would accelerate global warming at a time when scientists warn that countries need to burn fewer fossil fuels. The Natural Resources Defense Council noted that oil companies already hold leases to more than 10 million acres of ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico alone, most of which hasn’t been developed.

“We won’t strengthen our economy by locking future generations into decades more reliance on dirty fuels that do more harm than good,” said Alexandra Adams, the group’s senior director of federal affairs. “The Senate should restore these essential protections immediately — and then pass this bill.”

In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) changed his top line spending number for President Biden’s agenda more than half a dozen times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Democrats and Republicans have fought for decades over whether to open the refuge to oil and gas exploration and what sort of limits to put on offshore drilling.

The Biden administration is reassessing the refuge leases and the environmental analysis that underpins the drilling program on the coastal plain. But that move could spark a protracted legal battle, and advocates have pressed congressional Democrats to provide more lasting safeguards for a habitat that shelters caribou, birds and the southern Beaufort Sea’s remaining polar bears threatened by an overheating planet.

Many Republican governors in the Southeast oppose drilling near their coasts out of fear that a major oil spill would harm tourism, as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico did. But many Republicans in national office support the idea.

In 2018, the Trump administration announced plans to permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Atlantic. But early steps to allow oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean faced significant hurdles and legal challenges from opponents. In 2020, the administration acknowledged that permits to allow seismic blasting in the ocean — the first step toward locating oil deposits for drilling — would not be renewed after they expired.

Josh Partlow contributed to this report.

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