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This Is What Happens When You Treat Fossil Fuels as a National Security Issue

The Manchin climate compromise continues the worrisome trend of treating oil and gas infrastructure as a security necessity—even though they endanger more than they protect.

Senator Manchin gesticulates while speaking.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin speaks to reporters.

Joe Manchin created the conditions that led to this deal. Two weeks ago, the fossil fuel-funded Democrat from West Virginia declared he would not provide a deciding vote for legislation to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. As a result, billions of people over the world were staring down a grim and unsafe future, in which the world’s largest per-capita emitter would ignore scientists’ calls for a rapid shift off oil, gas, and coal.

That hopelessness created space for the current compromise, announced to great fanfare last week: In exchange for $60 billion in grants to polluted communities and $369 billion in funding for a transition to renewable energy, Manchin received assurances that the fossil fuel infrastructure driving the crisis could continue to be built.

Manchin has raked in more fossil fuel industry campaign donations than any other senator, on top of making millions on his own coal businesses. Yet he explains his fossil fuel industry giveaways as a matter of national security: “As the super power of the world, it is vital we not undermine our super power status by removing dependable and affordable fossil fuel energy before new technologies are ready to reliably carry the load,” Manchin said in a statement announcing support for the newly dubbed Inflation Reduction Act.

The bill includes tax credits for wind and solar companies and for people who buy electric vehicles, incentives for low-income households to electrify their homes, new penalties for methane flaring, increased royalties for fossil fuel production on federal land, and incentives for farmers to use conservation methods. However, it also says that the Interior Department will only greenlight renewable energy development on federally managed land if it also offers up drilling leases to oil and gas companies. The bill subsidizes carbon capture and storage that some analysts say could extend the life of coal plants.

Separately from the legislation, Democratic leaders brokered a side deal, agreeing to a raft of measures to expedite fossil fuel infrastructure permitting, including one- to two-year timelines for environmental reviews. The most specific item: “Complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” a project that would pump natural gas through the mountains and waterways of Appalachian Virginia and West Virginia.

Frontline communities have spent the better part of the last decade fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “There are things in that bill like funding black lung benefits for coal miners that I’m happy to see,” said Russell Chisholm, whose drinking water comes from a spring that’s part of the watershed the pipeline route bisects. “But ultimately, sacrificing any group or anyone downstream dealing with the climate impacts to get to those better pieces feels like a betrayal.”

Manchin has repeatedly used national security as justification for advancing the Mountain Valley Pipeline. It’s an old fossil fuel industry argument—now supercharged by the war in Ukraine—that is key to explaining the climate-unfriendly parts of the new climate bill.

Europe has long depended on Russian gas transported through pipelines like the Nord Stream 1. Recently, Russia reduced that pipeline’s flow, blaming economic sanctions for slow repairs on a key turbine. (The EU saw this as retaliation.) Germany’s Ukraine-related decision to pause a new pipeline, the Nord Stream 2, that would have increased transport of gas resources from Russia, has also constrained gas supply.

Fossil fuel industry lobbyists argue that the U.S. must increase its exports to Europe of liquified natural gas, or LNG, to reduce European dependence on belligerent Russia. President Biden appears to agree, pledging in March to send an additional 15 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe annually. This means that around a dozen new LNG export facilities awaiting financing and final approvals are more likely than ever to be pushed to completion, despite local communities’ opposition.

The problem is, it would take years to build up enough export and import capacity to make a big dent in Europe’s energy economy. With lifespans measuring in decades, the export facilities would likely continue operating through crucial years for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency said that avoiding climate chaos would require “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects.” If national security is going to spur an unprecedented shift in Europe’s energy economy, shouldn’t it be toward energy resources that support climate security, too?

For years, environmental advocates have pushed the idea that the climate crisis represents the most severe national security threat. In the days when all-out climate denial was popular among Republicans, the fact that the military took the crisis seriously was used as a means to get conservatives on board with modest climate action. Author and activist Bill McKibben and others have argued that the crisis requires a mobilization comparable to the one during World War II. In June, the argument bore fruit, as Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacture of solar panels, heat pumps, and other technologies that support a transition to renewable energy.

But the national security argument for climate action has its limits. Federal agencies have issued reports arguing that the climate crisis will require border fortification and new investments in climate-friendly military bases. Increased militarization is already being presented as a climate solution.

Furthermore, the climate-security link has never been used with the level of political effectiveness that the national security argument for fossil fuel production currently enjoys. Somehow, the image of a small set of fossil fuel pipelines being key to the security of an entire continent has been successfully spun as a reason to double down on such infrastructure rather than move away from it.

For communities fighting pipeline projects on environmental grounds, the Democratic leadership’s backing of the Mountain Valley Pipeline lends credibility to an argument that has justified crackdowns on pipeline opponents. The idea that oil and gas pipelines are “critical infrastructure” important to national security has led to the passage of laws across America— including in West Virginiaincreasing penalties for people protesting energy infrastructure. In September 2019, the Virginia Fusion Center went so far as to issue a briefing describing how counterinsurgency strategies refined in Afghanistan could be applied to opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

To Chisholm, who is a military venteran, disasters like the flooding in eastern Kentucky that killed at least three dozen people last week are where security resources should be focused. “In Eastern Kentucky, local people are getting the aid out and leading the rescue. Federal funds are always slow to arrive,” he said. 

So far details are thin on how exactly Democrats would push forward Mountain Valley’s completion. A summary of the agreement obtained by various news outlets only says that policymakers will “take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the DC Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.”  

It’s that second part that Chisholm worries about. The project is facing multiple court cases challenging environmental approvals. So far, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued favorable rulings to Mountain Valley opponents. “It’s really disturbing to me to suggest that legislative branch is going to come in and shuffle the deck to favor an outcome for the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” he said.

How history will view Manchin’s deal remains unclear. Multiple analyses suggest the measures in the bill could together reduce fossil fuel emissions 40 percent by 2030—not far off from Biden’s promise of a 50 percent reduction. One analysis showed that pollution policies in the bill could prevent 3,700 to 3,900 deaths annually.

But the price Democrats have paid for Manchin’s approval is steep. The fossil fuel industry will also cost lives—from climate change and from the adverse health effects at every stage of fossil fuel production.

Chisholm takes heart in the fact that it’s not possible for the Democrats to bargain away Appalachia communities’ continued resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “They’ve been telling us since 2014 that we cant stop them and they’re still not built,” he said. “We don’t know how this ends yet.”