Being a climate reporter over the last few months has involved a fair amount of déjà vu. Once again, Joe Manchin has a list of various things—many boosting domestic fossil fuel production—that he would like in exchange for his vote on a key priority for his party. Once again, this wish list remains vague, hinted at in interviews, press conferences, and leaks to the press but never fully articulated. Whether he’ll actually vote for something is even less clear.
With midterms fast approaching, Democratic lawmakers want something—anything—to pass. Even if the only “something” they can get is a few hundred billion dollars’ worth of tax incentives for clean energy distributed over a decade (the bulk of what’s still on the table), they’ll do just about anything to get it—including toss money at Joe Manchin’s favorite fossil fuel projects. This all raises an uncomfortable question: At what point might a deal be worse than no deal?
A number of green groups, progressive lawmakers, and think tankers have indicated their willingness to make whatever compromise Manchin might offer. “Sen. Manchin has been pretty clear about where his bright lines are,” Environmental Defense Fund Action’s David Kieve told Politico. “A few parts of the president’s agenda won’t be included in that. But all of us are at a point of ‘where does the rubber meet the road?’ The alternative would be to get nothing.” Expressing his openness to a deal, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden told CNN, “We can’t wait another decade to pass legislation that averts the worst climate catastrophes.”
Not everyone agrees that something is better than nothing. A lot depends on what Manchin wants funding for in exchange for a handful of green energy tax credits. At various points, Manchin has mentioned wanting federal support to fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline, regulatory rollbacks that’d make it easier to approve fossil fuel infrastructure, and more funding for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage projects, versions of which could help extend the life of coal-fired power plants. In other words, Manchin might want not just to narrow the scope of climate policies on the table but also to actively support polluting industries.
Some see the situation as uncomfortably reminiscent of 2015, when—days after the Paris Agreement—the White House quietly backed a deal to expand clean energy credits in exchange for lifting the long-standing crude oil export ban as part of a must-pass spending package. While there was little resistance to it at the time—green groups largely praised the compromise—the rule transformed the U.S. oil and gas industry, providing a boost at a crucial time for drillers that had been rocked by the previous year’s oil crash. Over the next four years, crude oil exports expanded by 750 percent.
“It’s just history repeating itself,” said Jean Su, director of the Energy Justice Program and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I’m concerned that we’re going to basically dig ourselves into a pretty bad fossil fuel hole while trying to fakely celebrate some probably pretty pathetic clean energy wins.”
Representative Sean Casten told me he was “cautiously optimistic” that some kind of climate policy would pass and that he didn’t have clear redlines that would cause him to withdraw support. “My redline is that this is a climate bill, and if it’s a climate bill it better improve the climate,” Casten told me. “If we have to take a little bit of poison but we still have a lot more good than bad in there, that’s the way legislation works.” He did also speak, however, of his “deep frustration” that Congress lacks “an objective way to answer that question,” meaning a way to evaluate whether there’s more good than bad in the bill. “So we’ll be doing that in our office,” he added. Late last year, he and Representative Joe Neguse introduced a Carbon Cost Act to score legislation’s emissions impact, similarly to how the Congressional Budget Office scores bills’ budgetary impact.
Asked about the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s redlines, Representative Pramila Jayapal—the group’s chair—said in an email that the CPC “will evaluate any proposal that is brought to the House, but let’s be clear about where we are: The recent IPCC report makes it clear that our options now are only how much we mitigate the damage from the climate crisis.”
The larger green groups I spoke to were reticent to name a point at which they’d withdraw their support. “The redline for us is that we have to have a bold climate bill,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, who declined to elaborate as to what would make a climate bill cease to be bold. Asked the same question, Climate Power executive director Lori Lodes said in an emailed statement that Biden “has the opportunity to show the world what a true climate president looks like, but only if the Senate passes bold climate action.” California Representative Ro Khanna said similarly, via email, that “passing a bold climate bill is critical to preventing the worst of the climate crisis.” The Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club both declined to comment for this story. Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club’s legislative director, told Politico earlier this week that there “may be a price to be paid on the [oil and gas] supply side, and it might hurt.”
It’s not entirely clear exactly what form a compromise would take. Manchin is reportedly in talks with the White House, according to those I spoke to for this story. And he and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski have been meeting with members of both parties to “gauge bipartisan interest in a path forward that addresses our nation’s climate and energy security needs head on,” a spokesperson for Manchin told CNN.
That pair could float standalone legislation that may or may not include clean energy incentives in the style of the White House’s original Build Back Better proposal. These priorities could get folded into reconciliation, and/or a bid to the White House to use tools like the Defense Production Act to spur along fossil fuel infrastructure.
In any case, getting Manchin’s vote on something climate-related may entail lending a tremendous amount of support to the fossil fuel industry. That might include federal support for the Mountain Valley Pipeline or even more sweeping revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act to push through pipelines. It might also not pay off at all; Manchin hasn’t exactly been a reliable narrator of his own priorities and voting intention. And the two-track strategy Democrats backed months ago—to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill on the promise that centrists would rally behind Build Back Better—backfired spectacularly when centrists balked at pushing through more ambitious legislation in return, halting momentum for a broader package.
Many still see passing something through the budget reconciliation process, which would bypass the need for 60 votes, as the most likely vehicle for clean energy provisions, with climate advocates and progressive lawmakers skeptical about whether any climate legislation can pass on a bipartisan basis. Casten said any climate policy that makes it through would almost certainly be passed by a party-line vote. “There is not a person in the world who understands and cares about climate policy who trusts the U.S. Senate, and I count myself in that camp,” he said, citing the body’s 95–0 vote on the Byrd-Hagel Resolution that kept the U.S. from participating in the Kyoto Protocols—a precursor to the Paris Agreement.
“This is not a Democrat-versus-Republican issue,” he told me. “The Senate is designed to represent land, not people. That is the structural problem in the Senate. There is no good Democratic reason why Wyoming should have as many votes as California.”
The Energy Justice Program’s Jean Su was hesitant to say whether there were any good options left. Whatever does end up passing—alongside however many fossil fuel giveaways are baked in—will likely be passed off as a win. “I think people are desperate for a deal,” she told me, “and they would want to show that their pressure has been able to achieve something.”