How the Debt Ceiling (2023) Bill Fast-Tracked the Harmful Mountain Valley Pipeline

This is a guest post by Aanahita Ervin, a 2023 Duke Stanback Climate Impacts Fellow.

On Saturday, June 3rd, President Biden signed the debt ceiling bill to avert a default crisis. In return, this bill deepened the climate crisis. Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame for this. They preyed on a vulnerable political moment to get what they wanted.

The debt ceiling bill affected a lot more than fiscal policy. Politicians shoved pet projects and other policy riders into the bill as well. Let’s take a deep dive into how and why this bill is terrible for the environment.

This recent legislation affected two areas of national environmental concern. First, it fast-tracked the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). Second, it took power away from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

a pipeline traveling through a forest - how the debt ceiling bill hurts us all

What is the Mountain Valley Pipeline?

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a natural gas pipeline that spans 306 miles. It begins in West Virginia, and it winds through 200 miles of steep slopes. These steep slopes are prone to landslides. Landslides can lead to pipeline explosions. For years, concerned citizens have halted the project in legal battles. The project has over 300 water quality violations. It has several property rights lawsuits against it. It has also cleared land, including 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest. MVP is a controversial pipeline. If allowed to proceed, it will harm people, forests, and other ecosystems.

What is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is federal law signed in 1970. Under NEPA, federal agencies must be good stewards. They must assess the environmental impacts of projects before making decisions. They must also encourage citizen participation in project decisions. Environmental organizations use NEPA to hold corporations and the government accountable.

What does the debt ceiling have to do with the Mountain Valley Pipeline?

Nothing. The debt ceiling crisis has nothing to do with the Mountain Valley Pipeline and natural gas. Yet, recent national legislation has linked them. A national crisis is the perfect moment to push through policy that normally wouldn’t pass. That’s exactly what Senator Joe Manchin (D) and speaker of the house Kevin McCarthy (R) did.

Specifically, the debt ceiling bill:

  • Requires agencies to issue all permits for the MVP within 21 days of the bill’s passage.
  • Invalidates previous federal appeals court rulings on the MVP.
  • Undermines federal regulatory and environmental procedures. These laws, like NEPA, protect public lands under threat from the MVP.

The MVP has undergone intense review and countless legal battles. MVP promises to have a negative impact on water quality, land rights, and the safety of citizens. It will undoubtedly exacerbate climate change. Congress chose to override the power of courts to question any of these actions. Congress also eliminated citizen’s rights to contest projects that do immeasurable harm.

This is a dangerous precedent to set for our national lands. According to Congress, their actions are above the courts. They’re disregarding every citizen’s right to use and treasure natural forests.

an artistic rendering of someone chopping down a forest

Does energy transition now mean deregulation?

With rising pressure to address climate change, lawmakers have advocated for permitting reform. To increase the use of renewable energy, we must build new transmission lines and update old ones. But, large infrastructure projects need permits.

Federal agencies have to abide by NEPA to approve any permits. NEPA forces corporations to act as responsible environmental stewards. They must do this without regard to their checkbooks. While great for the environment, NEPA is no friend to corporations. NEPA’s guidelines can make obtaining permits very expensive. It can lengthen project timelines.

How did the debt ceiling bill change NEPA?

The debt ceiling bill changed NEPA to limit environmental review of future projects. Firstly, it placed page limits and time span (1-2 years) restrictions on agencies. These dilute the quality and thoroughness of the environmental review. Secondly, project sponsors can petition courts when federal agencies don’t meet time deadlines. Legal action pressures agencies to complete reviews in haste more than in earnest. Lastly, federal agencies must submit annual reports for every project deadline they missed. This takes resources away from useful environmental assessments and upholds punitive bureaucratic processes.

What is most alarming is the smallest change of language. Projects not under “substantial” control of the federal government are exempt from NEPA. This guarantees legal evasion for harmful private projects from any environmental review. It does away with corporate transparency and the right to information. It strips communities and organizations of legal avenues to challenge projects. That is, until after the harm is done.

These changes ensure less scrutiny for destructive projects that exploit vulnerable communities. We know we’ve got to lower emissions, protect forests, and build new green infrastructure. We do none of these by permitting new natural gas pipelines. At Dogwood Alliance, we advocate for legislation to protect our forests. Maintaining forests is the easiest way to reduce emissions and fight climate change.

The debt ceiling bill harms us all

This bill exposes communities to injustices as it supports a project that:

Proponents claim we need the MVP project to meet rising energy demands. Yet, regional projections show demand for gas increasing slightly and then plateauing. Whereas the pipeline will operate for a decade or more, supplying more gas than needed. The “need” for the Mountain Valley Pipeline is questionable.

The energy isn’t even For us

Some MVP corporate partners have even been talking about exporting natural gas to India. This could make up for their losses from the construction of this overpriced pipeline. At the same time, it would jeopardize the health and safety of US citizens.

Pipelines are dangerous

Pipeline explosions put rural, elderly, and low income Southern communities at risk. From 2010-2016, gas companies reported 35 explosions resulting in 17 deaths. An explosion at an LNG facility in Washington in 2014 resulted in flying debris as heavy as 250 pounds. The vapors from this explosion could have led to secondary explosions. Communities in the South are in danger. Dogwood Alliance has a history of fighting to protect Southern communities. We’ll keep fighting as climate change, deforestation, and health risks increase.

We can’t stop fighting for our communities

Communities shouldn’t have to choose between economic crisis and the climate crisis. Congress and the president wrongfully prioritized a project that will harm the environment.

Even worse, they’ve restricted any possibility of questioning or regulating this project. They’ve also undermined a crucial environmental law meant to protect us. Our rights, our planet, and our health are in danger. We must be even more vigilant and continue to resist these violations of our rights.

Protecting forests ensures that carbon remains in the ground and within trees. Protecting forests restricts destructive industries from harming communities and trampling their rights.

TAKE ACTION: Demand your legislators take meaningful climate action to protect forests now!

Aanahita Ervin is a Climate Impact Fellow at Dogwood Alliance. She’s pursuing her Masters of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Aanahita received her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma. She’s interested in many issues like climate change, poverty, and criminal justice. At Dogwood, she’s exploring how the intersection of these systemic issues impacts marginalized Southern communities. She hopes to work in local government and use her skills to serve underserved and minoritized populations.

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