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Sen. Manchin’s Energy Bill Draws Fire From Climate Justice Advocates

Yet again, a climate measure pushed by a politician as a step in the right direction is found to be full of serious problems.
Screenshot of text from the Energy Infrastructure Act of 2021.
Screenshot of text from the Energy Infrastructure Act of 2021. (

By Kenny Stancil / Common Dreams

Public and environmental health advocates on Tuesday denounced Sen. Joe Manchin’s Energy Infrastructure Act of 2021, calling the bill, which proposes spending 70 times more on fossil fuels than renewables, a “kick in the gut to climate justice.”

Friends of the Earth examined the 495-page bill, a draft (pdf) of which was introduced late last month by Manchin (D-W.Va.) during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That committee is chaired by Manchin, a conservative lawmaker who has been applauded by an ExxonMobil lobbyist for weakening the climate provisions in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

The Manchin-led legislation proposes $95 billion in energy infrastructure investments, but according to Sarah Lutz, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, “a close look at exactly where the money is going to go reveals an undeniable bet on dirty energy from the 20th century over clean energy from the 21st.”

According to the group’s analysis, the bill “authorizes $28.8 billion in nuclear, carbon capture, and dirty hydrogen compared to only $410 million in direct authorizations for wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal, for a ratio of 70:1 dirty to clean energy.”

Even “when combined with the bill’s storage and efficiency programs,” the group added, “Manchin’s proposal still amounts to twice the spending on dirty energy than on clean.” Such investments would exacerbate coal, gas, and oil extraction and greenhouse gas emissions at a time when energy policy experts have called for drastic reductions in planet-heating carbon pollution, starting with keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Lutz stressed that Manchin’s legislation runs counter to Biden’s pledge to prioritize decarbonization in his infrastructure package.

“The Biden administration promised to center climate in its infrastructure investment,” she said Tuesday in a statement. “Manchin’s proposal does the opposite, lining the pockets of polluters with zero regard for the seriousness of the climate crisis.”

The Energy Infrastructure Act of 2021 is reportedly slated to undergo a markup session on Wednesday. Between the time it was unveiled on June 24 and now, the severity of the climate emergency has been on full display, including yet another round of record heat and wildfires currently ravaging the U.S. West.

Several other extreme weather events and fossil fuel disasters have devastated North America in just the past few weeks alone, including: a deadlyclimate crisis-driven heatwave in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, which played a large role in making last month the continent’s hottest June recorded history; a “firenado” in California; flooding in New York City, caused by Tropical Storm Elsa and resulting in the inundation of the city’s subway system; and a pipeline incident in the Gulf of Mexico that set the ocean ablaze.

Despite a scientific consensus about the anthropogenic causes of global warming and ample real-world evidence of its consequences, Manchin’s bill contains provisions that threaten to worsen the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and postpone the transition to 100% renewable energy.

According to Friends of the Earth, key spending proposed in the legislation includes:

  • $12.6 billion on carbon capture and storage (CCS);
  • $9.2 billion for nuclear, including a $6 billion bailout for existing reactors;
  • $7 billion for dirty hydrogen to be produced from fossil and other dirty sources; and
  • $1.9 billion giveaway to logging interests.

In her write-up of the “worst-of-the-worst” in the bill, Lutz called CCS a “polluter scheme” that allows fossil fuels corporations—touting the imagined potential of CCS technologies in order to legitimate further dirty energy extraction—to benefit from public subsidies while undermining efforts to slash emissions as thoroughly and rapidly as possible.

In addition to the possibility of leaks and contamination, progressives warn that large-scale sequestration efforts are “false solutions” that could forestall the robust action necessary to avert the most catastrophic effects of the climate emergency. If CCS is treated as an alternative to ambitious mitigation and adaptation policies, critics argue, then it could divert attention from the pressing need for decarbonization.

“We can’t rely on those who created the problem to fix it, but that is exactly what this legislation would have us believe,” Basav Sen, co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, said Tuesday in a statement about Manchin’s proposal.

While Christian Parenti, associate professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York, has argued that “the state must be forced to deploy civilization-saving technology,” he stresses that if CCS is implemented, it should only be used to strip excess carbon from the atmosphere while the rest is kept underground—not used to justify prolonging the status quo.

Given the 70:1 ratio of dirty to clean energy spending proposed by Manchin, the Energy Infrastructure Act does not come close to combining sequestration with decarbonization.

“Instead of funding non-polluting alternatives,” said Sen, “it throws public money at expensive, unproven technologies that will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue poisoning frontline communities and trashing the planet.”

Lutz also criticized the bill for propping up nuclear power, which she said “is incredibly toxic at every stage.”

“Wind, solar, and energy efficiency measures are proven renewable technologies that can be deployed much quicker and more affordably than nuclear power,” she said. “However, instead of allowing the phase-out of aging and uneconomic reactors, Sen. Manchin would authorize spending $6 billion through 2026 to bail out these failing facilities. This would harm consumers by keeping expensive, uncompetitive reactors online and hurt the climate by delaying the deployment of renewables.”

Pointing out that “95% of hydrogen is produced using fracked gas,” Lutz also took Manchin to task for failing to differentiate between hydrogen produced from clean sources and hydrogen produced from dirty sources.

In addition, she denounced the West Virginia Democrat for attempting to authorize “$1.9 billion for commercial logging on public lands.”

“Much of this spending is through the guise of wildfire or forestry management,” said Lutz. “However, in the absence of environmental standards, benign-sounding activities such as ‘restoration’ and ‘byproducts’ are used to funnel money towards logging and clear-cutting on public lands.”

Finally, Friends of the Earth noted that one significant “change between the newest iteration of the bill and its original text centers on the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund, which pays for the restoration of lands damaged by coal.”

“The bill authorizes $11.3 billion for the AML fund, but it is accompanied by a sharp cut to the AML’s only source of revenue—a fee paid by companies for every ton of coal they extract,” the group said. “The program exacts a different fee for surface, underground, and lignite coal, but the proposal from Manchin would cut all the existing fees across the board by 20%, endangering the long-term viability of the program.”

Lutz argued that “it’s hard to call something climate legislation when it hands money directly to coal corporations.”

The United Mine Workers of America, which in April signaled its support of a just transition, “is eligible for payments into its health and pension plans from the interest earned on unappropriated AML funds,” Lutz emphasized, adding that “the long-term risk of AML insolvency puts added pressure on obligations owed to workers.”

A new poll (pdf) of likely West Virginia voters released Tuesday by Data for Progress and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund reveals widespread support for the clean energy provisions in Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

According to the poll, two-thirds of voters are supportive of “specific investments in communities, like those in West Virginia, that have lost jobs as the country transitions away from using fossil fuels.” More than half want the government to increase spending “to create new good-paying, union jobs to manufacture the technologies of the future, like wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles,” and to provide consumers with “rebates and other incentives to purchase items such as electric vehicles, solar panels, and home appliances that are more efficient and create less pollution.”

Those results appear to put Manchin at odds with his own constituents.

Last month, when the Energy Infrastructure Act was introduced, Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that “Sen. Manchin’s proposal spells nothing short of a climate catastrophe, and it must be rejected.”

“Throwing breadcrumbs to renewable energy while spending billions to prop up fossil fuels and nuclear energy is worse than doing nothing at all,” Hartl added. “Our planet faces a climate crisis, and Sen. Manchin is fiddling while it burns.”

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