At the center of the ongoing debate over permitting reform—now encapsulated in Senator Joe Manchin’s Energy Independence and Security Act—lies a single unfinished piece of energy infrastructure: the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Stretching from northern West Virginia through to southern Virginia, the 300-plus-mile-long project is slated to transport two billion cubic feet of fracked gas per day, much of that bound for export. Manchin’s bill would speed along the project’s construction, fast-tracking permits and redirecting extensive and ongoing court challenges against it. If completed, the pipeline is estimated to pour 26 coal plants’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
Manchin’s enthusiasm for the project, which has faced fierce opposition along its route, is predictable. He’s long tried to promote his state’s fossil fuel industry and has accepted generous donations from backers of the pipeline. Gas pipeline companies have ratcheted up their spending on Manchin this year, from $20,000 in 2020 to $331,000 in 2022 so far. He’s the industry’s largest recipient of campaign funds overall. The deal to green-light the Mountain Valley Pipeline, then, has been portrayed in the media as a necessary and savvy bit of politicking to guarantee Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act: Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who brokered the deal, may not have wanted to fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but it’s a small price to pay for the IRA’s climate policies.
This is the dominant media narrative right now. But it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Schumer, not Manchin, is the single largest recipient of donations from one of the pipeline’s backers this year, NextEra. Schumer has received four times as many donations from employees and the company’s PAC this year as Manchin has.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a joint venture between EQM Midstream Partners, NextEra Capital Holdings, Con Edison Transmission, WGL Midstream, and RGC Midstream. By far the biggest spender in Washington has been NextEra, which owns a number of utilities and energy infrastructure projects around the country. Over the last year, Manchin has received $59,350 from NextEra, including $55,850 from individuals and $3,500 from the company’s PAC, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Schumer has received $283,200, including $278,200 from individuals and $5,000 from the company’s PAC. ConEd has given Schumer $500 this year, and $2,500 since the 2017–18 campaign cycle. Over the same time period, Manchin’s campaign committees have received $15,500 from NextEra, while Schumer’s has gotten $10,000. Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
NextEra has been Schumer’s second-largest donor this year overall, despite never having breached his top-five list of donors previously. The utility holding company, whose subsidiaries include Florida Power and Light and Gulf Power, hasn’t historically had a major footprint in New York. Earlier this year, NextEra Energy Transmission—the subsidiary backing the Mountain Valley Pipeline and with plenty to gain from the permitting reform package’s transmission-related elements—finished work on a transmission line through New York. Schumer’s campaign donations from NextEra this year are three times the amount he’s received from the company in total since joining the Senate in 2018. All but 12 of the 144 donations Friends of Schumer PAC received from NextEra employees between 2021 and 2022 have been $1,000 or more, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline has accumulated more than 350 water quality violations and other environmental infractions since construction began in 2018. The permitting reform bill would go to remarkable lengths to protect the project from local and national scrutiny, mandating that any future legal challenges to either the pipeline or any of the bill’s provisions be brought in the D.C. District Court. It would mandate that judicial review panels more generally be compiled by random selection, seen as a potential reaction to the Mountain Valley Pipeline getting repeatedly rejected for permits by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Republicans have extensive ties to the project too, of course. West Virginia Senator Shelly Moore Capito, who has released her own, more radical permitting reform proposal, owns between $2,002 and $30,000 of NextEra stock, while her husband, Charles Capito, owns between $15,001 and $50,000. He sold off between $1,001 and $15,000 of that stock on May 26, as Roll Call reported.
The majority (61 percent) of NextEra contributions this year, however, have flowed to Democrats. The company’s PAC has given $210,000 each to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responsible for raising funds for Democratic Senate and House candidates, respectively. It gave the same amount to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $170,000 to the DCCC’s GOP equivalent, the National Republican Congressional Committee. Manchin, the DCCC, and DSCC did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
As my colleague Grace Segers reported last week, opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline hasn’t just come from climate progressives. Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine came out against the Energy Independence and Security Act just after text was released, miffed that he wasn’t consulted on a deal that would see more gas flowing through his state. The broader fight around permitting reform has caused a sizable rift within the Democratic coalition, and an odd-bedfellows alliance of progressives wary of fossil fuel provisions and centrists disgusted by the process. Getting donations from fossil fuel interests, meanwhile, remains a thoroughly bipartisan enterprise.