Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has withdrawn his proposal to expedite federal environmental reviews of major energy projects from a must-pass stopgap spending bill needed to keep the government operating past Sept. 30.
The decision, which he announced shortly before a key Senate procedural floor vote on the spending bill, leaves up in the air the fate of his package of proposed project permit process changes.
But Manchin's move also cleared the path to passage for the short-term continuing resolution (CR). The stopgap would keep federal agencies—and their construction and infrastructure programs—operating, although only through Dec. 16.
One particular infrastructure provision in the underlying CR is $20 million in additional emergency appropriations to the Army Corps of Engineers for water and wastewater infrastructure.
According to a Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill, the funds "can be used in Jackson, Miss." That city has experienced severe water-system problems.
The Senate approved the procedural vote on Sept. 27 by a 72-23 vote, easily clearing the 60-vote threshold required for passage.
Senate and House votes on the CR itself are expected by Oct. 1, when the 2023 fiscal year begins.
Manchin faced opposition to his permitting proposals from many Republicans, and some Democrats had objected to including his energy provisions on a bill meant to keep the government running.
"It is unfortunate that members of the United States Senate are allowing politics to put the energy security of our nation at risk," Manchin said in a statement announcing his decision. "A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only serves to embolden leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who wish to see America fail."
He also cited his "firmly held belief that we should never come to the brink of a government shutdown over politics."
A pledge to hold a vote on project review streamlining legislation was what Manchin received from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in exchange for supporting President Joe Biden's climate and health care package, the Inflation Reduction Act, enacted in August.
In a floor statement not long before the procedural vote began, Schumer said Manchin had asked him—and he agreed—to advance the CR without the West Virginian's energy-permitting provisions.
Schumer added, "Senator Manchin, myself and others will continue to have conversations about the best way to ensure responsible permitting reform is passed before the end of the year."
Industry groups also are not giving up on environmental streamlining legislation. The Associated General Contractors of America urged the Senate to continue to pass project-review and permitting legislation by year end.
"The time and costs associated with delivering projects must be reduced and can be done without jeopardizing important environmental protections," James V. Christianson, AGC vice president of governmental relations, said in a letter to Senate leaders a few hours before Manchin's announcement.
More specifically, he said AGC is seeking to expand use of the "One Federal Decision" policy beyond surface transportation to other types of projects.
The group also favors "clear deadlines" for permit reviews, limits on "frivolous lawsuits" and "more transparency, accountability and oversight of federal agencies' environmental processes."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also says it will keep pursuing project streamlining. Neil Bradley, its executive vice president, said in a statement, “The Chamber remains committed to enacting permitting reform this year.”
Bradley said that "the differences that exist today on specific components of legislation are by no means insurmountable."
Amy Andryszak, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America president and CEO, said in a statement that “the permitting system in this country is broken and needs to be fixed. Without that, energy infrastructure projects will not move forward." She added that the group will work with Congress to keep this issue front and center to ensure a timely and predictable permitting process at every stage of a project.
Environmental groups cheered Manchin’s decision as a victory. “This is a win for communities and our climate,” Mahyar Sorour, Sierra Club deputy legislative director, said in a statement.