The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the defeat of Manchin’s energy bill could be a loss for the climate

The mixed-bag bill would have expanded power lines crucial for clean energy

Wind turbines and solar panels line a renewable energy facility in Lexington, Ore., in May. (Sarah Hamaker/Portland General Electric/AP)
4 min

On Tuesday, when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced he was pulling his proposal to expand energy development across the country from a must-pass government operations bill, many environmental groups celebrated. “This is a good day for the climate and the environment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

But the bill also included a provision to rapidly expand transmission lines across the country. Without those lines, the United States is in danger of missing its climate targets entirely, limiting the impact of the massive climate bill passed last month by Congress.

What was in the bill?

Manchin’s bill, known as the Energy Independence and Security Act, included provisions to speed up the development of both clean and fossil-fuel energy across the country. (The bill is also known in congressional jargon as “permitting reform.”) It would have expedited the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (a natural gas pipeline through West Virginia that has long been a priority for Manchin). It also would have set a two-year target for environmental reviews of energy projects and expanded the federal government’s authority to permit transmission lines nationwide.

That last point is most important for attempts to wean the country off fossil fuels. Renewables, such as wind and solar, don’t produce power all the time and in every place. To switch the U.S. grid over to renewables, huge, high-powered transmission lines are needed to bring electricity from sunny and windy areas of the country to its urban centers.

According to one analysis from energy modelers at Princeton University, the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate bill passed in August, is expected to cut U.S. emissions 40 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. But that’s only if the United States increases transmission by 2.3 percent per year — a rate that is more than double historical averages. If transmission grows at only 1 percent per year, the modelers estimate that 80 percent of the bill’s benefits could be lost.

Why was it so divisive?

Opponents and supporters of the bill quarreled over one crucial question: Is it more important to build clean energy fast, or to stop the continued build-out of fossil fuels?

Many environmentalists argued that the bill included too many giveaways to the oil and gas industry and that the provisions to speed up clean energy would also accelerate fossil fuel production. Activists fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline marched in D.C. to oppose the legislation.

“We’re in a full-blown climate emergency,” said Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental organization Earthjustice. “This deal was predicated on an all-of-the-above approach that advanced fossil fuels.” Dillen says that provisions in the bill — like the two-year target for environmental reviews — would further harm communities that are living near fossil fuel infrastructure. Existing laws could help to build transmission lines faster, she says.

But others have argued that the increased oil and gas infrastructure is a small price to pay for expediting the transition to clean energy. “If we have to build a few natural gas pipelines to have the largest clean-energy build-out in world history, I’ll make that deal,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a former climate adviser to President Bill Clinton.

What happens next?

Ultimately, the bill failed because Manchin couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate; Republicans refused to get onboard and offered their own (even more fossil-fuel-friendly) proposal in response. Some Democrats also refused to support it, citing concerns for the environment.

That leaves two options going forward: The bill could be attached to a must-pass defense bill, or Manchin could wait until after the midterms — during what is often called a “lame-duck” session — and try to attract greater support then.

Regardless, most agree that some form of permitting reform that accelerates clean energy and builds out huge transmission lines is needed to meet the country’s climate goals. “We need fast, dynamic construction of clean energy,” Bledsoe said. “And that’s being held back by our sclerotic permitting system.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.