Why the Senate's loudest climate advocate may vote to approve a fracked gas pipeline
In an interview on Thursday morning, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said he doesn't believe the Mountain Valley Pipeline's approval will automatically derail the nation's climate goals.
Today, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer will attempt to fast-track that bill through the Senate. But it’s not clear yet it will pass—in part because of objections from climate-concerned Senators over a controversial fracked methane gas pipeline championed by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin: The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).
The last-minute debt ceiling bill includes an order to expedite approval of all permits needed to complete the $6.6 billion, 300-mile MVP, which would cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands and could generate yearly emissions equivalent to anywhere from two to 26 coal plants, according to varying estimates. It also includes an order to quash lawsuits against the pipeline, and dictates the court that appeals can be heard in.
On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would not vote for the bill, in part because of its inclusion of the MVP. “When the future of the world is literally at stake, we must have the courage to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and tell them, and the politicians they sponsor, that the future of the planet is more important than their short-term profits,” he said in a statement.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine also expressed serious concerns about the inclusion of the MVP, and introduced an amendment to strip the provision—which, if passed, would require the bill to go back to the House.
But one of the Senate’s most climate-concerned Senators—Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse—is not ruling out voting for the debt ceiling package because of the MVP’s inclusion.
“I don't think opposition on climate would be the best reason to oppose this bill,” he told HEATED.
In an interview on Thursday morning, the Senator known for giving 287 speeches on the Senate floor raising alarms about the climate crisis said he agreed with Sanders’ sense of urgency. “I think he's right that the future of the world is at stake,” he said. “And I think it's, at least to me, intensely frustrating that these name-brand projects are being cleared while we work through the shadow of that threat.”
However, Whitehouse said he believes there is a “pathway to climate safety” that “more than eliminates the harms” of the project. Read the interview below to see why—and if you’re a subscriber, let us know what you think in the comments.
This interview was part of a previously-planned, wider-ranging conversation with Senator Whitehouse on climate action in Congress and beyond. But given the stakes and timing of the debt ceiling bill, we’re publishing this part of the interview today. Stay tuned for the rest of the conversation next week—and if you value this reporting, please consider supporting it with a subscription.
Emily Atkin: There are very clear implications for the planet in this bill. Probably the flashiest one is the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. According to one estimate, the pipeline would generate yearly emissions equivalent to what's produced by 26 coal plants.
You tweeted on May 30 that “There is a pathway to climate safety, even through the approval of the Mountain Valley pipeline.” This inclines me to believe that you plan to vote yes on this bill. I just want to confirm that my inclination is correct.
Sheldon Whitehouse: I'm going to hold my fire until there actually is a vote. But I don't think opposition on climate would be the best reason to oppose this bill, given that it protected the complete IRA. [Editor’s note for context: Republicans had tried to use the debt ceiling bill to gut the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate provisions, but the House passed an amendment to remove that language].
There are some NEPA troubles, and we’re examining those to see how much of that is really a problem, and I’ve got my budget and EPW teams looking at that. So let me have that be a TBD, if you don’t mind.
Emily Atkin: I understand. I know that there's a lot to look at in there. I also understand that there's a very real, urgent need to prevent economic disaster.
But I think it's interesting that you said you don't think that the climate implications are a reason to vote no on this bill. I would like to hear just a little bit more about that. Because I think just generally, some readers are a bit on edge about all these fossil fuel projects getting approved—the Willow project, for example.
Sheldon Whitehouse: Well Willow was a very high visibility project, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline is a very high visibility project. And I think it sucks that either one of them was approved.
Emily Atkin: Yeah.
Sheldon Whitehouse: But the context for that is that I believe that the Biden administration is working towards a pathway to climate safety that is credible. And there are several important parts of that.
One is the IRA itself, which if well-implemented, can generate significant emissions savings. And they have, I think, a highly competent person in charge of implementation: John Podesta. So while we're going to keep looking, the initial signs are good on that.
Then we have the social cost of carbon coming up through the methane regulation at the EPA. And if that is not just successfully put into law through the Administrative Procedures Act process at EPA, but then expanded to all federal agencies by the Office of Management and Budget, that will make another very big difference in emissions reduction.
And again, though we're still in “trust but verify” mode, I do think that Ricky Revesz over at OIRA, the OMB guru on this, is as good a person as you could want in that position to get this done. So if that happens as promised, that's another big win.
Emily Atkin: It sounds to me like you're saying that the the benefits coming down the line for emissions reductions will outweigh the negative climate impact of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Sheldon Whitehouse: If done right and as promised, then they will far outweigh the emissions of Willow and Mountain Valley, as distressing and discouraging as the approval process is.
And then there's another one, which is the methane task force to hit fast and hard and methane leaks, now that we can spot them by satellite. And the Attorney General Garland has already said that he's got a DOJ-wide task force. And I'm hoping that a multi-agency task force across Interior, EPA, DOJ and other relevant agencies will be announced, and put to work effectively and soon. That makes a big difference because methane is such a bad pollutant.
Emily Atkin: And that does directly relate to the energy source (fracked methane gas) that would be flowing through the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Sheldon Whitehouse: Once we get the domestic methane leak enforcement up and credible, that puts us in a good position to push for global methane enforcement, whether just by naming and shaming, or whether it becomes a diplomatic and trade issue with countries that have massive leaks and aren't doing anything about it. But it's hard to solve other countries’ methane problems when you don't have a credible methane enforcement operation up and running yourself.
Emily Atkin: There are two more concerns I have about the debt ceiling bill that I'd love to get your perspective on. One is that, by rescuing the Mountain Valley Pipeline in this bill, gas industry and power utility donors are strengthening their foothold in the political system—not just with Republicans, but with Democrats.
NextEra Energy, the company behind the pipeline, not only gave $60,000 to Senator Manchin in 2022, but $302,000 to Majority Leader Schumer. Are you also concerned about this increasing influence?
Sheldon Whitehouse: As you know, I've been concerned about fossil fuel and industry influence for a long time, and have even written books about it.
Emily Atkin: Yes.
Sheldon Whitehouse: I think that the responsibility for our failure in Congress to do anything serious about climate change in the interval between the Citizens United decision and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is entirely attributable to evil and corrupting influence of the fossil fuel industry. Period. Full stop.
I think it's important that the fossil fuel industry own that now and in the future, as the costs mount of their bad behavior. I think it's one of the absurd moments in American history of bad special interest influence creating massive harms for regular people.
Emily Atkin: Is it hard for you, then, to be put in this position to vote for a bill that very clearly has been influenced by these interests? I know it’s probably not the first time it's happened.
Sheldon Whitehouse: Pretty much any time you touch on anything related to energy and climate, there they are. There they are.
Now, one thing that bears on that a little bit is that we've been putting pressure on the U.N. to require that corporate interests that show up at these meetings should, as part of their ticket to entry, have a true and fair disclosure of what they've been up to on the political front against climate. And that is under consideration now by the UNFCC. They have a meeting coming up in Bonn this month where they will have a chance to address this problem. And I think that could make a big difference.
I think it's absolutely wrong for corporate interests to be showing up at the COP as if they intend to help in the fight against climate change without disclosing how they're spending their money to disrupt the fight against climate change and preserve the fossil fuel industry as pollution.
Emily Atkin: There's a million questions I going to ask you about about this bill, but since we don’t have much time: The second concern I want to raise with the bill text is that it explicitly says that the Mountain Valley Pipeline “will reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition.”
I read a recent op-ed in The New York Times that said this text equates to climate misinformation, and that it codifies climate misinformation into law. I agree with that statement, and I just wanted to know if you agree with it.
Sheldon Whitehouse: Yeah. It's frustrating to see that language, because it's really wrong in two respects. Natural gas is only an improvement over coal to the extent that you're not accounting for methane. Once you account for methane, and particularly the methane leakage that the industry tolerates, I don't think it's a climate win at all. So there's that misdirection built into that language.
The other misdirection built into that language is the proposition that replacing one set of carbon emissions with another set of carbon emissions is going to help us solve the climate problem. Solving the climate problem actually requires net zero carbon emissions, and in fact net negative carbon emissions, just we're going to blow through the 1.5 degrees safety threshold.
Emily Atkin: Your colleague, Senator Bernie Sanders, said that he would not vote for the debt ceiling bill specifically because of the potential climate impacts. He said that the future of the world is literally at stake. It sounds like you do have a different perspective than he does.
Sheldon Whitehouse: I think he's right that the future of the world is at stake. And I think it's, at least to me, intensely frustrating that these name-brand projects are being cleared while we work through the shadow of that threat.
But I'm working very hard to get the methane task force, the social cost of carbon, the well implemented I.R.A., and a forward-leaning approach to the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. And I think if I can get the Biden administration to deliver those four things effectively, then that more than eliminates the harms of those projects. In fact, all net, the prospect of a pathway to climate safety emerges.