Immediately after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reached an elusive agreement with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling on Saturday, the speaker emerged from his office and called a little-known congresswoman about a once obscure energy project.
“We got Mountain Valley Pipeline done,” McCarthy told Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.), according to people familiar with the conversation.
The speaker was referring to a controversial gas pipeline that the debt limit deal sought to fast-track. Its inclusion shocked many in Washington, including several lawmakers, aides and lobbyists.
Yet the phone call, which has not been reported previously, capped a week of behind-the-scenes negotiations among House Republicans, White House officials and others over the 303-mile pipeline, which would carry natural gas across West Virginia and Virginia - over the opposition of local residents and climate activists.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a swing vote in the evenly divided Senate, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the pipeline. But House Republicans and their aides also played a key role in securing language in the debt ceiling deal to expedite the project’s completion, according to people close to the talks, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations.
To make the stars align, House Republicans had to enlist Manchin in communications with the White House, the people said. The resulting deal included many players but demonstrated how industry lobbyists can influence legislation and help certain politicians in the mix.
White House officials agreed to include the language to honor a promise they made to Manchin last summer. To secure Manchin’s support for Democrats’ landmark climate law, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, party leaders agreed to pass a follow-up bill that would speed up the nation’s permitting process for energy infrastructure, including by expediting the Mountain Valley project.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, is a joint venture between some of the largest gas companies in Appalachia and the nation’s most valuable power company, NextEra Energy. Its largest investor is Equitrans Midstream, which has a 48.1 percent ownership interest and will operate the pipeline.
The weeklong scramble to boost the project began on May 23 - a day when Republicans accused Biden of “a lack of urgency” in the debt ceiling talks, a claim the White House rejected. On that day, Equitrans CEO Thomas Karam met with staffers for Miller about including the favorable provisions in the debt ceiling deal, the people close to the talks said. The same day, Lance West, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and Manchin’s former chief of staff, also huddled with Miller staffers about the MVP.
West characterized his negotiating role as minimal, saying he regularly meets with lawmakers as the top lobbyist for the oil and gas industry’s main trade association.
“I’m just a man in a lobbying job like any other,” he said. “I meet with everybody about permitting reform.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans, declined to confirm the meeting but said in an email that the company is “grateful for the full support of the White House, as well as the strong leadership of Democratic and Republican legislators for recognizing the Mountain Valley Pipeline as a critical energy infrastructure project.”
One key player was Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), the chief deputy whip and a key member of the House GOP leadership. Reschenthaler helped rally support for the provisions, noting that the pipeline would deliver gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation to markets in the Southeast.
“Natural gas from communities in my district, along with Ohio and West Virginia, will lower energy costs in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina,” Reschenthaler said in a statement. “I applaud my colleagues’ teamwork and was proud to work with them to ensure MVP’s completion.”
Manchin also played a pivotal role. The West Virginia Democrat called the White House last week to urge the administration to support the Mountain Valley Pipeline provisions, the people close to the talks said. A spokeswoman for Manchin confirmed the call but declined to detail what was discussed or when exactly it occurred.
The politics of all these maneuvers are complicated.
Manchin has not yet said whether he will run for reelection next year in a state that Biden lost to President Donald Trump by nearly 39 percentage points. But Republicans brushed aside concerns that including the pipeline provisions would deliver a major victory to Manchin, buoying his potential reelection bid.
Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) encouraged members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus to back the pipeline language, despite his announcement that he will seek Manchin’s seat along with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R). And Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) was one of the loudest voices in the Senate supporting the language, despite her endorsement of Justice.
Ryan Kelley, a spokesman for Mooney, said in an email that the West Virginia lawmaker “has consistently supported the Mountain Valley Pipeline” and is “committed to expanded energy production in West Virginia and domestic energy production in the United States.”
Capito, who has introduced her own legislation to expedite MVP, said in a statement that “despite delay after delay, we continued to fight to get this critical natural gas pipeline up and running, and its inclusion in this deal is a significant victory for the future of West Virginia.”
Many climate activists see Biden’s tacit approval of the pipeline as yet another betrayal, given permits granted to the Willow oil project in Alaska and his past promises to rapidly reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
“This White House has paid so much lip service to environmental justice,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But when the rubber meets the road, the Mountain Valley Pipeline decision was completely exclusionary of the actual environmental justice communities on the ground.”
Biden administration officials say they have sought to honor their promise to Manchin last summer. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voicing support for the pipeline, and Biden climate adviser John D. Podesta has argued the project was likely to be completed anyway in due time.
White House officials also say they prevented Republican attempts to gut funding from last year’s landmark climate law.
“President Biden protected his historic climate legislation, stopped House Republicans from clawing back record funding for environmental justice projects, and secured a deal to get hundreds of clean energy projects online faster,” White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said in an email.
The debt ceiling deal would approve all of the outstanding permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline within 21 days of its passage. Environmental lawyers have called this language an extraordinary end-run around the courts, noting that the pipeline has been delayed by a string of legal setbacks.
Building the Mountain Valley Pipeline across national forest and hundreds of streams requires permits from federal and state agencies. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has repeatedly blocked these permits for failing to account for environmental damage, especially pollution in local waterways. And just on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission needed to provide a further environmental review of the project, which could have put its completion off until 2024.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a top GOP negotiator on the debt limit bill, said on a call with reporters Tuesday that the pipeline language in the debt limit bill is “ultimately a huge win for Republicans” because it puts “Democrats on record supporting a conventional energy project that removes or ties the hands of the judiciary.”
A Senate Democratic aide said much of the credit belongs with Manchin.
“He is the one responsible for bringing it to the White House’s attention and holding the White House’s feet to the fire,” the aide said. “This is Joe Manchin’s win.”
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The Washington Post’s Timothy Puko contributed to this report.