We need to be told the true climate cost of Schumer and Manchin’s pipeline side deal

24 09 2022 | 15:18David Sirota and Julia Rock

Democrats hailed the Inflation Reduction Act as a climate crisis victory – so why the secrecy over an oil and gas pipelines bill?

As climate change batters America with heatwaves, droughts and floods, lawmakers should be asking a simple question about any bill: does it increase or decrease the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling the ecological emergency?

Somehow, though, that query is still not being asked right now in Washington, even as Democratic leaders are promising to advance a bill to gut environmental laws and expedite oil and gas pipelines.

Congressional staffers and environmental groups tell The Lever that they have seen no reliable analyses comprehensively quantifying the climate effects of the initiative. In short: lawmakers appear to be proceeding without any data, even though a draft version of the pipeline bill has been in the public domain since early last month.

This is a deliberate deception. After all, last month, Democratic leaders waved around projections of emissions reductions to portray their Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as a weapon to combat climate change. Indeed, to deflect questions about why fossil fuel companies were lauding the bill, party leaders and their media acolytes pointed to studies – one by an institution with ties to fossil fuel giants – asserting that even with its provisions expanding oil and gas development, the legislation would result in a huge net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

That was the bait, now here’s the switch: those studies did not take into account the pipeline legislation that the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, says was an integral “part of the IRA”. And now neither Schumer nor the groups that created the previous emissions reductions projections are releasing similar analyses about the pipeline proposal that Congress could vote on as soon as this week.

The initiative, which is backed by the Biden administration, was originally negotiated between Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin – respectively Congress’s top recipients of utility and fossil fuel industry campaign cash. Though the final text of the measure is still secret, an early leaked draft was emblazoned with the watermark of a powerful oil and gas industry lobbying group.

“The fact that emissions projections for Schumer’s side deal have not been discussed either in private or in public point to the reality of what’s at stake here,” said Jim Walsh of the environmental group Food and Water Watch. “Schumer and Manchin’s deal is not talking about clean energy; it’s a fossil fuel payday. The leaked draft specifies the fast-tracking of 19 fossil fuel-related infrastructure projects. Any effort to spin that increased pollution as emissions reduction would be just that – spin.”

‘Pipelines are the vast majority of the emissions’

Pipeline approvals are not some unimportant side issue in the fight to halt climate change – they are central, according to data from researchers at Michigan Technological University. Their recent study found that pipelines account for nearly half of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions, because the infrastructure accelerates the distribution and use of fossil fuels.

That is in addition to emissions from natural gas pipeline leaks of methane, which is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Such pipeline leaks are releasing millions of metric tons of methane every year, according to government data cited by the Environmental Defense Fund.

What’s more, congressional investigators earlier this year found that “oil and gas companies have internal data showing that methane emission rates from the sector are likely significantly higher than official data reported to [the Environmental Protection Agency] would indicate”.

“Allowing any additional fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines that we put in place locks you into additional fossil fuels,” the Michigan Tech engineering professor Joshua Pearce told The Lever. “The pipelines are [responsible for] the vast majority of the emissions within the United States. To build more of them is really sacrificing the future.”

Congress currently has an agency to evaluate the financial cost of proposed bills, but no similar agency to evaluate the climate costs of legislation. That has created a dangerous information vacuum, but in this case one thing is clear: depending on how the final Manchin bill is written, it could undercut projected emissions reductions from other parts of the IRA.

“Just looking at a couple pipelines and our public lands gives you a sense of how much damage this could do,” said Jamie Henn, a co-founder of 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media, which is backing a coalition of 1,200 groups opposing the pipeline deal. “The Mountain Valley pipeline is estimated to have the lifetime emissions of approximately 25 coal-fired power plants, the Line 3 pipeline that Biden refused to stop is estimated to have the equivalent emissions of 50 coal-fired power plants, and one-quarter of US emissions since 2005 have come from public lands, which Manchin and the GOP want to open up for more drilling. Start adding these up and we’re talking serious emissions.”

Fossil fuel money is flowing to Democrats

Earlier this month, 77 House Democrats released a letter calling on their party leaders to keep Manchin’s pipeline deal out of an unrelated stopgap spending measure. Schumer responded by pledging to include the deal in that spending bill, and Manchin has reportedly been enlisting the help of fossil fuel CEOs to pressure lawmakers.

But the pair have continued to refuse to release any data about the climate impacts of their initiative – a stonewalling tactic that serves their campaign donors.

For instance: employees from one of the companies leading the West Virginia pipeline project have been funneling cash to Manchin and Schumer – to the point where they are now this election cycle’s second and fifth largest contributors to the duo, respectively. That same company, NextEra, has also dumped more than $400,000 into Democrats’ House and Senate campaign committees.

In all, Democratic candidates and committees have vacuumed in more than $13m from donors in the fossil fuel, utility and pipeline industries. Meanwhile, Manchin and Schumer’s former staffers have been hired to lobby for pipeline and utility companies.

All of that money and lobbying power doesn’t want anyone asking any inconvenient questions about what the pipeline bill would actually do to the livable ecosystem.

They don’t want any inconvenient emissions projections getting in the way of their profits.

They want lawmakers flying blind – so they can keep profiting no matter how much worse the climate crisis becomes.

  • David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin, and the founder of The Lever. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter

  • Julia Rock is a reporter for The Lever


COVER PHOTO: Joe Manchin, left, and Chuck Schumer are respectively Congress’s top recipients of utility and fossil fuel industry campaign cash. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP