Sections of pipe for the Mountain Valley Pipeline are seen near Elliston, Virginia, in September 2020. Credit: Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP

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Ecstatic, elated, ebullient. That smattering of descriptors captures the rare giddiness that enveloped relieved environmental advocates when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law earlier this week.

Still, the joy of a long-awaited, $369 billion investment in taming global warming is tempered by lingering caution about the repercussions of a murky side bargain purported to streamline oil and gas projects. 

In some Virginia circles, activists worry that the last-minute agreement to rescue a climate victory in the U.S. Senate amounts to a burdensome yoke for Appalachian communities united for years in fending off the $6.6 billion natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Bill Muth, an organizer with Third Act Virginia, said he is thrilled by the “good parts” of the new law that are expected to reduce carbon emissions by 40% over the next eight years.

“I loathe the side deal,” the Richmond resident said about negotiations reportedly reached between Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “Third Act Virginia stands solidly with the frontline communities in Appalachia.”

The organization is a relatively new chapter of Third Act, a national climate justice organization Bill McKibben launched last September so “experienced Americans” age 60 and up could commit what the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis of Georgia classified as “good trouble.”

“If anything,” Muth continued, “the IRA clarifies that the climate crisis is a climate justice emergency.”

While few are privy to the specifics of what was promised to Manchin, one reported provision that rankled advocates was an agreement to complete the now-on-hold Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport hydraulically fracked gas from wells in Manchin’s home state. It could even restrict which courts are allowed to rule on pipeline challenges.

“Until those details were revealed, the MVP was on life support,” Muth said. “With the side deal, it seems all the pieces of significant resistance to the pipeline have fallen like dominoes.”

He’s referring to other measures in the deal that potentially open the door for Congress to upend the bedrock environmental laws and curtail citizen challenges to fossil fuel projects. For example, that could lead to reforms such as accelerating Clean Water Act certifications and capping at two years the permitting timelines for major energy projects.

“It’s even more chilling if Manchin can impose his will on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other regulators,” Muth said. “That potential to gut environmental protection laws and take the legitimacy out of regulatory processes is one reason I’m committed to seeing that MVP doesn’t see the light of day.”

Third Act remains committed to campaigns that pressure the financial industry to divest from fossil fuel infrastructure, said Muth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University literacy professor.

In June, he led dozens of protesters on a march from the James River to the downtown Richmond headquarters of Wells Fargo Bank. The bank is the No. 1 funder of the pipeline’s construction partners. 

“If regulatory and judicial is compromised even further, you can expect some Third Acters to be doing more direct actions on the MVP,” he said. “Decisions in Congress that have nothing to do with the frontline people on this pipeline route keep me grounded and assured that the right stand is to make sure it never gets built.”

Blame fossil fuel industry’s false narrative

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is two projects in three states. The mainline would be 303 miles between West Virginia and southern Virginia. The 72-mile Southgate extension would reach into North Carolina to a market that close observers say is non-existent.

The limited liability company trying to complete it is a joint venture of EQM Midstream Partners, NextEra Capital Holdings, Con Edison Transmission, WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream, according to the pipeline website.

Currently, it’s way over budget, years behind schedule and saddled with millions of dollars in penalties for water quality violations.

Roanoke resident Freeda Cathcart, a climate and environmental leader with Mothers Out Front, has monitored pipeline activities since 2019.

She maintains that construction of the Mountain Valley is not as far along as the 94% owners are claiming. “With an estimated 20 linear miles of pipe remaining,” the pipeline website states, “MVP’s total project work is nearly 94% complete, which includes 55.8% of the right-of-way fully restored.” 

Cathcart also wants legislators to boost funding to federal agencies tasked with overseeing fossil fuel infrastructure.

“What’s frustrating is that the fossil fuel industry is making it sound as if regulations are the problem,” she said. “But it’s the federal agencies that are the problem because they’re not providing adequate insight on these giant projects. Congress needs to fully fund those agencies so they can do their jobs.”

Previously: Meet a clean water activist fighting to protect Virginia streams from the Mountain Valley Pipeline

Cathcart pointed to lengths of pipeline that are consistently left exposed, in piles along the route. Exposure to the elements for more than a year compromises materials, causing safety risks.

The climate law, even with the so-called Manchin bargain, will make a significant dent in carbon pollution. The legislation expands tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles, boosts energy efficiency, establishes a national climate bank, supports climate-smart agriculture, bolsters production of sustainable aviation fuel, reduces air pollution at ports and invests $60 billion to advance environmental justice priorities.

But a completed Mountain Valley Pipeline could cancel some of those gains.

“Any project that accelerates extreme weather has to go,” Cathcart said. “It’s crazy to put up a kerosene stand next to a five-alarm fire. And that’s what MVP is doing.”

Instead of criticizing Manchin, Cathcart said the focus should shift to the pipeline project’s owners and others in the fossil fuel industry who perpetrate a false jobs-versus-environment narrative.

“The industry needs to come to grips with where we are,” she said. “There needs to be an orderly transition to clean energy.” 

Still, Cathcart understands why the Manchin deal shook up those in frontline communities.

“They’ve been suffering this whole time and feel as if they’re in sacrifice zones,” she said. “They deserve to be heard.”

Advocates urge federal regulators to say no  

Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Manchin deal elevates the need for Congress to pass the Environmental Justice for All Act.

“We won’t let the oil and gas industry marginalize communities,” Bapna said. “Low-income communities and communities of color need an even greater voice at the table when proposed projects, like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, could harm their neighborhoods, pollute their air and water supply, endanger wildlife and accelerate the climate crisis.”  

Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR) is a coalition of Virginians and West Virginians dedicated to protecting communities from harms caused by the Mountain Valley Pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

Previously: ‘Less-than-ideal bedfellows’: Mountain Valley Pipeline payout prompts criticism

When the Manchin deal came to light, Grace Tuttle, programs coordinator for the coalition, said residents of Appalachia would refuse to be sacrificed for political gain or used as concessions.

Days prior, on July 29, the public comment period had closed on Mountain Valley’s request with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend a permit that would allow pipeline construction to continue for another four years — if the owners can find a way to overcome the court rulings and other decisions that have frozen it in place.

FERC granted the original certificate in 2017, then complied with MVP’s request for an initial extension in 2020. That two-year add-on expires this autumn.

Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights was one among thousands of groups and individuals urging FERC commissioners to deny yet another extension, thus choking off “the climate nightmare known as the MVP.”

“Our grassroots movement and national allies are all hands on deck at this critical moment to stop the MVP,” Tuttle said. “There is overwhelming health, ecological, climate and economic evidence that the MVP has no place in our communities, especially during a climate crisis.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.