What Manchin’s fossil fuel kick means for climate legislation

By Emma Dumain, Nick Sobczyk, Jeremy Dillon | 03/18/2022 06:26 AM EDT

Democrats and advocates alike fear criticizing the senator in the hope of reaching a deal.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to double down on fossil fuels. Francis Chung/E&E News

Sen. Joe Manchin has been burning hot when it comes to fossil fuels.

In the last week alone, the West Virginia Democrat has derailed a nominee for the Federal Reserve and indefinitely stalled another at the Interior Department, both over their climate politics.

He has disparaged electric vehicles, saying he is “very reluctant” to promote them due to concerns about foreign supply chains. And he’s continued to talk up increased domestic fossil fuel production amid the Russian war against Ukraine, most recently at a hearing he convened last week.


The actions from Manchin, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have raised eyebrows and concern on and off Capitol Hill. They’ve also frustrated advocates who are still fighting to advance sweeping climate change policies that Manchin derailed in December when he pulled his support for the $1.7 trillion “Build Back Better Act.”

“Our level of anxiety and frustration around Joe Manchin is boundless,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, in an interview with E&E News.

And yet most Democrats and advocates continue to maintain something of a code of silence around Manchin in the hope that he’ll eventually come around to supporting something — or anything.

“I really don’t want to talk about Senator Manchin,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a senior member of Energy and Natural Resources who also chairs the Budget panel, said gruffly in response to the question of whether he was happy with Manchin’s leadership on energy issues.

When asked whether she thought Manchin had changed his tone on fossil fuels in the last few weeks, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) let out a long chuckle before saying, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to respond to that, frankly.”

Green advocates are also declining to exert outside pressure on the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to reverse course.

Indeed, those who might ordinarily be loudly complaining are instead keeping their gripes to themselves. Sources told E&E News there is broad agreement that public criticism would only alienate Manchin, whose support will determine whether Congress is able to pass a $550 billion climate package in “Build Back Better.”

Their unwillingness to fight back against actions that are slowing down agency operations and stymieing an aggressive response to the climate crisis underscores the power of Manchin’s hold on the evenly divided Senate.

Balancing act

In a statement to E&E News, Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon suggested the senator’s recent rhetoric was a response to a change in the times, but not a change in position.

“For years, Senator Manchin has expressed concern about America’s reliance on other nations for energy security. The consequences of that reliance are more obvious now than ever before,” Runyon said. “He doesn’t believe that we need to choose between energy security and reliability and fighting climate change.”

She added that Manchin will “continue to use his role as Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to do everything in his power to protect American energy security and maintain energy reliability, while also making meaningful progress to reduce emissions through innovation.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), a committee member, said that Manchin is “looking at a transition to clean energy as quickly as possible [while] also trying to make sure that low-income, working people can afford to get to and from work. He’s trying to balance that.”

It’s a balancing act environmental groups have been fretting about for years.

Manchin took the top Democratic spot on Energy and Natural Resources when his party was still in the Senate minority in 2019 after Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) opted to take the lead Democratic role on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

It was a source of consternation among environmental groups, particularly after Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats and was the progressive favorite to succeed Cantwell, opted to stay put as ranking member on the Budget Committee.

Manchin, after all, is a longtime coal booster who once shot a bullet through the Waxman-Markey carbon cap-and-trade bill in a campaign ad.

Still, Manchin took meetings with environmental groups to assuage anxieties, and the Democratic caucus had high hopes for greening his views (E&E Daily, Dec. 10, 2018).

Cantwell said Democrats have succeeded in some respects, noting that Manchin has moved closer to the rest of his caucus on climate and clean energy in recent years.

“Is it far enough for the rest of us? No,” Cantwell said in an interview this week. “But at the same time, he’s showing some understanding. … I think the proof will really be in the pudding if he steps up and supports something.”

‘All-inclusive’ climate bill

For now, environmentalists are treading carefully in the hope they can still secure a deal with Manchin on a climate bill based around the “Build Back Better Act.”

Many of the most influential green groups refrained from direct criticism of the moderate lawmaker when contacted by E&E News, despite his vocal embrace in recent weeks of expanding domestic oil and gas production on federal lands and waters and renewing his request for restarting the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Senator Manchin has said he thinks there is agreement — and 50 votes — for major investments in clean energy,” Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement to E&E News. “And we’re eager to see that move forward.”

Indeed, Manchin has said there could be room to strike a deal on the massive climate portion of the “Build Back Better Act” in the months since he announced his opposition to the broader bill.

He said during an annual energy industry conference in Texas last week that he would be open to an “all inclusive” climate bill that supports energy technologies across the board, though he offered the caveat that he would not “want to give anyone hope that there’s going to be something.”

Manchin also made his views clear as Democrats negotiated their climate and social spending package last year.

Democrats were forced to nix a proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program at his behest, and Manchin and his staff went through multiple rounds of negotiation on the proposed methane fee. He also vocally opposed a new tax incentive for union-made electric vehicles.

Despite the bill’s demise, however, the end product was heavily influenced by Manchin’s views. The bill would, for example, have bolstered nuclear power and hydrogen — both Manchin priorities — as part of its massive suite of clean energy and electric vehicle tax incentives.

Green groups insist there’s still a deal to be had with Manchin, said Matthew Davis, director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

“The House-passed package is ready to go,” Davis said in an interview. “It has been well-vetted, and Sen. Manchin himself has said more than once publicly that he’s ready to move forward.”

Worries over nominations

Still, allies of the environmental movement desperate to strike a deal with Manchin are struggling to reconcile the need for diplomacy with the reality that they are letting the senator undermine major climate priorities.

His recent posture on nominees has been especially rattling for Democrats and environmental advocates who are now seeing Manchin move on from killing legislation to slowing government functions based on his climate positions.

From the time he announced his opposition to Federal Reserve Board nominee Sarah Bloom Raskin because “her previous public statements have failed to satisfactorily address my concerns about the critical importance of financing an all-of-the-above energy policy,” it only took a little more than 24 hours for Raskin to withdraw herself from consideration (Climatewire, March 17).

Just a few days earlier, Manchin had reversed course on Laura Daniel-Davis, President Biden’s nominee for assistant Interior secretary for lands and mineral management (E&E Daily, March 9).

Unlike with Raskin, Manchin has so far given no indication he’ll ultimately vote against Daniel-Davis. But he went from praising her over the course of two confirmation hearings to saying last week that he would hold off on scheduling a vote on her nomination in his committee until the Biden administration provides more clarity on its federal oil and gas leasing program.

“Ms. Daniel-Davis has been nominated to serve in a role that would oversee the federal leasing programs,” said Runyon in a statement at the time. “Senator Manchin would like to see more from the Department that it intends to get back to the business of leasing and production on federal lands and waters in a robust and responsible way.”

Multiple Senate Democrats and sources in the environmental advocacy community say they still have no idea what that means. They also say that Manchin and his office have been unresponsive and uncommunicative about his intentions.

“It’s not a good sign when Joe Manchin goes from saying that she has unequivocal support … to say that he’s now undecided,” said one source in the advocacy space.

In the meantime, not a single one of Daniel-Davis’ backers in the Senate has made a public statement expressing their continued support since Manchin pressed the pause button on her nomination, which will affect the day-to-day operations of the agency.

Supporters in the advocacy community have also expressed disappointment, but have not directly challenged Manchin.

When it comes to Raskin, Democrats have been equally circumspect.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), when asked to characterize her frustration with Manchin over the collapse of the Raskin nomination, replied, “We have just seen a very public demonstration of the power of the oil lobby.”

But asked whether she was willing to say that Manchin was inextricably linked to that lobby, she said, before disappearing into an elevator, “I’ve said what I want to say on this.”

Good environment for a deal?

Nomination gripes aside, the biggest outstanding question for Democrats right now is whether keeping their complaints to themselves will give them the space to strike a deal with Manchin.

In some respects, it might be easier now that Manchin sees a clear incentive to take any legislative action on energy, said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Democratic staffer on the Senate Finance Committee.

Manchin, as the Energy and Natural Resources chair, might also feel more compelled to act on his committee’s jurisdiction than if he were a rank-and-file member, Bledsoe said.

“I think this crisis increases the chances of a deal because of the political expediency, which is [energy] security and inflation,” Bledsoe said.

While it may not be the deal climate hawks had originally imagined, Hickenlooper stressed, “the perfection could be the enemy of the good, but I think he’s … trying to figure out how we go to a clean energy economy and yet, at the same time, not put working people in a situation where they’re going to have to pay for it.”

Still, Hickenlooper, who like Manchin is a former governor, acknowledged that his colleague has become enormously unpopular in some circles.

“I know he’s been under a lot of criticism,” he said, but made sure to note, “That criticism hasn’t been coming from me.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2013 to 2014, who has since that time been the top Democrat on Finance, stayed on message when asked about whether he has observed Manchin move back to the center-right on environmental policy stances.

Manchin has never wavered in his support for Wyden’s massive clean energy package, Wyden said, the seeds of which were planted in a visit to West Virginia in 2014 when Manchin agreed to back such a blueprint on the condition that the proposal would be “technology neutral.”

But perhaps most important, Wyden said, was the fact that Manchin has never pretended he’d wield the gavel of Energy and Natural Resources as a representative of mainstream Democrats on climate issues.

“He has always been very blunt on that: He says, ‘I represent West Virginia. I come from a state where Trump wins by 40 points,’” said Wyden. “He’s very blunt in saying that.”

Wyden wouldn’t say whether the chair of this committee should, at this moment, be someone who better represents the environmental values of his party.

But perhaps no Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee believes he has as much to gain from maintaining a positive working relationship with Manchin as Wyden.

Wyden remains convinced that the climate portion of the “Build Back Better Act,” which includes elements of his clean energy tax framework, still has a path forward. Manchin’s vote will, of course, be necessary.

“Obviously I have a difference of opinion on the substance” on climate issues, Wyden said. “It’s very important to watch how people looked at something at one point, then looked at it again.”

Still, Wyden said his exchange with Manchin back in 2014 remains instructive. “He hasn’t changed.”