“You are wearing people out,” complained Senator Joe Manchin at a March 4 hearing of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. The West Virginia senator, who reportedly receives $500,000 a year from the coal company he founded and that’s now run by his son, was reprimanding three commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the little-known, immensely powerful agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, methane gas, and oil. FERC’s approval is required before private companies can install an oil or gas pipeline, build a liquid natural gas terminal, or construct other types of fossil fuel infrastructure. In the past, that approval has almost always been given: Since 1999, FERC has approved 99 percent of the gas industry’s project applications, which is no small reason why the planet is dangerously overheating.
Manchin was angry because FERC had recently signaled a potential change in course. On February 17, the five commissioners whose decisions set FERC policy had adopted a new policy: Before FERC would rule on a given project, an impact assessment would be required. FERC would assess the proposed project’s effect on local landowners and communities, including low-income communities where people of color often predominate, as well as the project’s effect on the environment in general and climate change in particular.
The vote adopting the new policy was close: 3 to 2, with the three commissioners who were Democrats outvoting the two Republicans. At his committee hearing, Manchin directed his ire at the three Democratic commissioners. “There’s a policy by some of death by a thousand cuts on the fossil fuel industry,” he said, before warning that the new FERC rule threatened America’s energy security and economic prosperity. If their projects had to pass such a community and environmental impact assessment, Manchin added, private companies might not pursue the projects in the first place. “I know these people,” he said, in an inadvertently revealing comment. “They’re not going to invest. They’re going to walk away.”
Walking away is, of course, what the latest science says is imperative to avoid catastrophic climate change. The International Energy Agency, a bulwark of the global establishment, declared in May 2021 that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius means that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built: no new gas pipelines, no new LNG terminals, and no new coal mines or power plants. The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released April 4, said the same.
FERC’s new rule is a far cry from the IEA’s or IPCC’s position, but it is still too much for Manchin and his fossil fuel allies. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, for example, castigated the FERC for its supposedly “radical climate agenda.” He added, “Maybe we’re better off without FERC. Maybe we should eliminate it.”
As a veteran climate and social justice activist who attended the committee hearing Manchin chaired, I interpret such comments as a sign that our side is beginning to turn the tide. For years, activists have been hammering FERC for its blatant pro-industry bias and the resulting intensification of the climate crisis—a bias, it’s worth noting, that has persisted under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. By law, FERC is supposed to regulate energy development in service of “the public interest.” Activists have accused FERC of instead serving the corporate interest—or, more precisely, of equating the corporate interest with the public interest. Now that the three Democrats on the commission have acknowledged that the true public interest must be taken into account, it’s possible that the days of FERC rubber-stamping every fossil fuel project that private companies propose could be ending.
But the battle is far from over. Manchin and many others are now using the Ukraine war and the attendant energy crisis as a pretext for their “drill, baby, drill” agenda. The Biden administration appears susceptible to their arguments. On April 15, it announced that oil and gas leasing for 144,000 acres of federal public land will resume. This was done even as Biden has rightly said that the Ukraine crisis is one more reason why the United States has to move away from fossil fuels—and the consequent reliance on petro-states—to clean energy.
Picking up on Manchin’s petulant cue, we activists plan to keep on “wearing out” the fossil fuel pushers. We will keep marching, filing petitions, attending hearings, speaking out, committing civil disobedience—but no violence—to persuade these people and institutions to “walk away,” as Manchin put it, from their destructive projects. Given the rise of wind and solar and battery storage in this country and worldwide, there is reason to believe that if our movement keeps at it and keeps growing, there is hope for the urgently needed rapid shift away from polluting fossil fuels.
On April 9, for example, hundreds of movement activists attempted to blockade the Grant Town Power Plant, a facility in Grant, W.Va., that processes coal waste it receives from Enersystems, the company owned by Manchin’s son. The grassroots group West Virginia Rising organized the blockade with support from many other groups like Beyond Extreme Energy (for which I volunteer) and the Poor People’s Campaign, whose Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II delivered a rousing speech as police arrested protesters:
It’s time for change in West Virginia. Manchin swore he would defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. He has violated that oath. Instead of establishing justice, he has established injustice at every turn. He has decided that the US Chamber of Commerce agenda is better than the agenda for the people of West Virginia and the United States. At every turn, he has chosen money and greed.
Next month, a “Walk for Appalachia’s Future” will travel across West Virginia raising up the voices of local activists demanding cancellation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed 300-mile-long fracked-gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina that Manchin supports.
What’s next? You’ll have to wait and see. But I can promise you this: Coal baron Joe Manchin and his buddies aren’t going to like it very much.