Angered by a pre-election presidential swipe at the coal industry, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has taken a hostage. Revealingly, that hostage is a chief architect within the executive branch of energy permitting reforms, which is supposedly a top priority of Manchin’s. (He recently sponsored a reform package that Republicans blocked.)
Late last week, Politico reported that Manchin would not hold a nomination hearing for Richard Glick, the current chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Glick’s term expired in June, and without confirmation by the end of the year, he would have to step down from FERC, leaving the agency deadlocked between Democrats and Republicans.
That could stall out the work FERC is doing on accelerating the electricity transmission build-out, which is generally seen as among the biggest challenges to the green transition. If more transmission lines cannot be built to move renewable energy from where it is produced to where power is needed, much of the clean-energy benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act will be lost, and hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases that could be avoided will be emitted per year.
Manchin conditioned his support for the IRA on getting a vote for his permitting reform bill. Ultimately, he pulled the package from the continuing resolution to fund the government in September because it didn’t have the votes. Manchin has talked about adding permitting reforms to the defense policy bill, which passes Congress every year.
The permitting package Manchin introduced earlier this year included electric transmission reforms that would give FERC “siting authority” to approve the construction of transmission lines (even over objections of regional planners) if they are deemed in the national interest. FERC has no such preemption authority now for transmission; it does have it for natural gas pipelines. The permitting bill would also allow FERC to undertake all environmental reviews for transmission projects, and to allocate the costs of such projects unilaterally.
This would hand FERC a considerable amount of power, which would all go to waste if the agency mired in gridlock because the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—Manchin—refused to confirm its leader in a fit of pique. Even without new powers, Biden’s FERC is actively working to accelerate transmission permitting, which Manchin’s maneuver would also hamper.
The situation calls into question whether Manchin cares all that much about bolstering domestic energy production, or if he is more myopically interested in getting particular fossil fuel projects in West Virginia approved and built, over local objections. At any rate, it’s hard to say he’s a sincere believer in improving transmission build-out, when he’s stalling its biggest champion in the government.
Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon would only give the Prospect a brief one-line statement about the Glick nomination and its impact on permitting reform, one he has given other outlets. “The Chairman was not comfortable holding a hearing,” Runyon said in an email.
So no, Manchin will get his pound of flesh, and if he's still the Chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, he can continue to block the nomination of a FERC head for another two years by denying any Biden appointment a confirmation hearing. Biden may have won a major battle getting his Green New Deal passed, but it looks like America will be paying the Manchin toll on that road for a long time to come.