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Debt limit deal would allow controversial Mountain Valley pipeline's completion to be expedited

Congress may be on its way to avoiding debt default for the nation, but it could come at some environmental cost. Included in the text of the deal is a provision that would approve the remaining permits for the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, thereby "expediting completion" of a project championed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat.

The permitting provision – which takes up 25 of the bill's 99 pages – identifies the pipeline by name and, noting it would carry natural gas more than 300 miles across the Virginias, it says that the pipeline is "required in the national interest" to "increase the reliability of natural gas supplies and the availability of natural gas at reasonable prices."

But the pipeline, which is nearly complete, has undergone months of battling for its final permits and has a history of environmental concerns. And the fight to expedite its approval may not be over: the debt ceiling bill still must go through Congress, and several members are already unhappy with the inclusion of the pipeline. On Tuesday, six House Democrats filed an amendment to remove it from the bill. 

In the Senate, Democrat of Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine, also told CBS News that he is "extremely disappointed" by the provision. 

"[It's] bypassing the normal judicial and administrative review process every other energy project has to go through," the spokesperson told CBS News. "This provision is completely unrelated to the debt ceiling matter." 

If Congress were to keep the provision, it would approve "all authorizations, permits, verifications, extensions, biological opinions, incidental take statements and any other approvals or orders issued" that are necessary for its construction and operation. It would also expedite the process, so that the pipeline's permits could be approved within 21 days of the bill's enactment. 

What is the Mountain Valley Pipeline project? 

According to the project's website, the pipeline would run about 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, providing up to 2 million dekatherms a day of natural gas to the mid- and South Atlantic U.S. Construction on the pipeline began in 2018 and the company set a goal for it to be in service later this year. 

Manchin reintroduced legislation earlier this month to ease permitting on energy projects, including the pipeline. He has tried to attach it to larger bills but has failed. Manchin argues that permitting reform — and this pipeline — are necessary for the nation's energy security. In April, the pipeline lost a key permit after a federal appeals court said that the state hadn't properly assessed the impact the pipeline would have on streams and wetlands. The court said there have been at least 46 water quality violations totaling more than half a million dollars in fines, the Associated Press reported. 

A few weeks later, the U.S. Forest Service reissued another key permit that would allow the pipeline to go through about 3 1/2 miles of the Jefferson National Forest, despite past federal court rulings that developers had failed to adequately consider the environmental impact of doing so, the AP reported. 

What is the controversy surrounding the Mountain Valley Pipeline? 

The project claims that the pipeline and natural gas are "critical in providing reliable and affordable the efficient development of renewable energy sources accelerates," while the bill says it would "reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition." 

But while natural gas does emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal and 30% less than oil, according to the environmental nonprofit Center for Climate Energy Solutions, emissions from natural gas combustion has increased nearly 43% since 2005. In 2021, natural gas combustion for energy made up just over a third of the nation's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The bill's characterization of the project is "absolute nonsense," Collin Rees, Oil Change International's U.S. program co-manager, told CBS News.

"It would have a very, very substantial impact on the climate," he said. "Our report found that it would be 89 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent [annually], which would be like building 26 new coal power plants. That's not the direction that we need to be going." 

Rees said these emissions make the pipeline "incompatible" with both the Biden administration and the world's goals of reducing the worst impacts of climate change, both of which require significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. 

"If I could say one thing about this Mountain Valley Pipeline is that...nobody can actually talk about who needs this gas," Rees said. "...It's a boondoggle for a lot of different reasons, but particularly its massive climate impact and the fact you'd be locking in those emissions for decades and decades to come." 

If energy security is a primary driver of this provision, Rees said, the goal should be focusing on renewables. 

"There have been massive strides in renewable energy. They're much more reliable," he said. "...We see massive swings in volatile fossil fuel prices. We're seeing tens of thousands of workers fired, we're seeing pipelines exploding all over the place. These are things which make our country less secure."

Part of the permitting reform included in the bill is designated for streamlining energy storage, which is necessary to increase reliability on clean energy sources.

There are also environmental concerns. 

The EIA explains that natural gas production can create a significant amount of "contaminated water" that, if not properly handled, stored and treated, could pollute land and waterways. 

Since 2018, the construction of the pipeline has been subject to more than 70 complaint investigations, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, most recently one that found there was significant erosion around a portion of the site. There have also been complaints of "muddy runoff," an eroded waterbar channel and sediment entering waterways. 

The inclusion of this provision in the deal has outraged environmentalists. The environmental group Climate Defiance has planned protest Tuesday outside the Brooklyn, New York, home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose second-largest contributor is NextEra Energy, one of the companies behind the joint venture of Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC. According to nonprofit campaign finance tracker OpenSecrets, Schumer received $302,600 from NextEra between 2017 and 2022. 

Numerous environmental groups have been fighting against the pipeline's approval over the past year and have issued statements about the provision.

"Singling out the Mountain Valley Pipeline for the approval in a vote about our nation's credit limit is an egregious act," Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director of environmental organization Appalachian Voices said in a statement. "By attempting to suspend the rules for a pipeline company that has repeatedly polluted communities' water and flouted the conditions in its permits, the president and Congress would deny basic legal protections, procedural fairness and environmental justice to communities along the pipeline's path."

The Center for Biological Diversity called the bill a "colossal error," and said it "limits the public's ability to provide input on fossil fuel projects and other destructive developments that would harm the communities most burdened by pollution, while allowing corporate polluters to effectively rubberstamp the projects they're proposing."

Rees says environmental justice – which has been a major focal point for Biden – would also suffer, and that the pipeline provision is a "blatant betrayal" of Indigenous and communities of color "who have been extracted from for centuries in Appalachia."

"They are seeing their homes and land values and water and air destroyed by this project already, as its construction has continuously failed to meet up to the standards that the company said it would," Rees said. "...This is utterly unrelated to the debt ceiling. This is not something that deserved to be in here at all."

Scott MacFarlane contributed to this report.

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