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Opinion Democrats should embrace Joe Manchin’s ‘big oil side deal’

Senator Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, holds a hearing on battery technology at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Sept. 22. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

Senate Democrats are racing to figure out how to keep the government’s lights on, facing a Friday deadline to pass a spending bill funding federal operations. It should not be hard. No one wants a government shutdown with November’s midterm elections looming. But a fight has exploded over whether to tack onto the necessary spending bill what opponents call “the big oil side deal” — legislation designed to speed energy project permitting, consideration of which Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) demanded in return for his summertime vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ landmark climate and health-care bill.

There should be no controversy: Including Mr. Manchin’s bill would improve the package. This is true even — or especially — if one’s primary concern is climate change.

Mr. Manchin’s bill has stoked controversy because it contains a sweetheart provision that would benefit a West Virginia pipeline project that Mr. Manchin wants to get through. But that is not even close to the legislation’s most consequential element; the fact that the bill would ease construction of power lines is.

The nation needs to build a lot of new infrastructure if it is to transition rapidly off greenhouse-gas-heavy fossil fuels and onto renewables. Aside from more solar panels and wind turbines, perhaps the greatest need is transmission — big wires that transport large amounts of electricity from power plants to towns and cities. The sun does not shine and the wind does not blow everywhere at the same time. A grid packed with renewables will require transmission lines to zip electricity from the places where weather conditions are favorable to the places people live. Moreover, electricity will have to replace gasoline as the fuel for the nation’s cars and trucks, power heat pumps and water heaters in people’s homes, and run the stoves that will replace natural gas ranges, which means the nation will need more of it — and more wires to move it around the country.

Yet building things such as power lines is unreasonably difficult in the United States. Major transmission projects, even those expressly designed to move clean electricity, die after years in permitting purgatory. Princeton’s ZERO Lab, which models the effects of climate policies, found that if the United States failed to increase the pace at which it expands its transmission lines, 80 percent of the emissions reductions that could come from the Democrats’ new climate bill over the course of this decade would not occur. Even increasing the pace by 50 percent would leave 25 percent of the policy’s potential emissions cuts on the table. Failing to improve the speed at which the nation builds transmission lines would even boost natural gas consumption over this decade, which would be an ironic result given that opposition to Mr. Manchin’s bill reflects concerns about building a natural gas pipeline.

The Manchin legislation would enhance the federal government’s power to approve transmission lines it deems to be in the national interest, and it would make it easier to finance the new wires. It would also encourage more speed on the lengthy reviews that can stymie other needed development. Democrats should embrace the reform — not hold up government funding in a gratuitous squabble.

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