Why I’m suspicious of the Machin-Schumer compromise, and what we do about it

There’s been a lot of hot takes, premature celebration, and doomerism since the Manchin-Schumer compromise deal on a big budget reconciliation bill was announced, which Manchin wants to call the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (🤮 ).

I took some time and dug through the bill (yes, I read legislative text when I have to) a lot of the tweets, takes, & analyses and here’s what I think. This took me a long time to write and footnote. There’s a ton in it. So I also made a video explainer for those more inclined to the TL;DR:

What it is

First of all, let’s get clear about the facts. This is budget reconciliation bill, which is a fancy way of saying it’s all about money and taxes. Anything that isn’t about taxes and spending can’t be in the bill. That’s a good thing in one specific way: Manchin couldn’t use this bill to directly negotiate over building and permitting of pipelines, like the MVP, which he loves more than god, his family, and puppies. More on that in a moment.

It also means that this is a big investment in a particular theory of change: namely, that money and markets can solve the climate crisis.

How big of an investment? About $370 billion dollars big. That’s down from the original Build Back Better plan, which proposed to spend $550 billion on climate change investments, but it’s still very big.

What got cut? A lot of painful stuff – money for high speed rail, a civilian climate corps, and maybe most important an idea called the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP). The CEPP was one of the most important (for fighting climate change) parts of the original BBB we spent so much time fighting for last year. It’s dead now, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but basically it paid utilities to switch to clean energy, and penalized them for using fossil fuels. It never got the chance to be debated very much, but it could have been used to create a Federal Renewable Energy Commission, like our friends at BXE have been calling for.

What’s left? A lot – especially tax credits (remember, this bill is all about taxes and spending) for electric cars, heat pumps, solar panels, and more. It also has new taxes and controls on methane pollution, money for sustainable farming, environmental justice (nowhere near the 40% Biden Promised). If that’s all it was, it would be good! Maybe not good enough, but better than nothing and just plain good. But something about how they talked about the bill made me suspicious.

Why I got suspicious

The first thing that struck me on Wednesday night when the deal was announced was that so many members of Congress immediately said the bill would cut US emissions of global warming pollution 40% by 2050. First of all, Senators and Congressmen were tweeting that number out before they’d even read the bill, so how could they know? Second of all, BBB – when it was still in it’s full $550 billion glory late in 2021 – was only projected to cut US emissions by 45% by 2030. We did a bunch of posts back then about how Biden wasn’t doing enough, even with BBB, to meet his climate promises and our commitment under the Paris Agreement. And remember, the Clean Electricity Payment Program was supposed to make up most of that bill’s pollution reduction.

So if this Manchin-Schumer compromise is $100 billion less dollars in climate spending than BBB, and doesn’t include the single biggest thing (by far) that made BBB an emissions cutting bill, how can it still cut pollution nearly as much as BBB?

No surprise, it probably can’t/won’t: New reports out on Thursday and Friday from some of the most fossil-fuel-friendly modeling firms confirm that this Manchin-Schumer compromise will probably not cut emissions by that much. In fact, the 40% number people keep repeating is the very-most optimistic projection. The least-optimistic scenarios (again, by some very optimistic people) is that the bill would actually do less than if we passed no bill at all. Let that sink in a sec: the people cheering the most for this admit there’s a chance that it could be worse – in terms of climate change – than doing nothing.

Schumer slide
In 2021 Chuck Schumer released this chart showing the plurality of the BBB’s 45% emissions reduction came from the CEPP
rhodium group slide
Last week, the Rohodium group put out this analysis showing the potential emiisions reductions of the Manchin-Schumer compromise to be 31-44%, almost the same as the BBB, despite not having the CEPP

And then it gets worse

But look, if it’s just a question of trying something, and doing nothing – I’ll always choose to try. Belief in things unseen and hope in the face of dire consequences are articles of faith to both the climate movement and the practice of non-violent direct action – the two things 198 methods is literally here to do.

But that also assumes there aren’t negative consequences to the things we “try.” And that’s very much not the case with the Manchin-Schumer compromise. As you might expect, to buy Manchin’s vote Schumer had to promise a lot to the fossil fuel industry. What you might not know or expect is that the bill would write into law everything we’ve been working to fight for the last few years: Especially fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

The bill, as written right now, specifically says you can’t build offshore wind unless you permit offshore drilling. It says you can’t build a single solar panel on public lands (millions of acres by the way) unless you first permit drilling, fracking and mining on those same public lands. It also includes billions of dollars of investment in hair-brained schemes like carbon capture, hydrogen made from fracked gas, and methane gas made from massive “CAFO” farms of pig and cow production.

But it’s the first part that really might make this bill more harmful than good. One leading climate scientist said there would be 10 times as much good stuff as bad. But what she really meant is that there are 10 good things, for every 1 bad thing. That’s a difference in number, but not necessarily in climate emissions. If I change 10 lightbulbs in my house from incandescent to LED, and then build a 4500 MW coal-fired power plant, I’ve done 10 good things and one bad one. But not at the same size or scale.

The Manchin-Schumer compromise is similar because the amount of public lands it requires to be sold for fossil fuel extraction is enormous – 620 million acres. And that, I think, creates two especially dangerous problems:

  1. It specifically creates sacrifice zones – especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the Alaskan Arctic, and the Permian Basin West of Texas. American energy policy has always been racist. But even Trump never tried to write into law that you had to target specific communities for pollution and extraction. This bill, written and celebrated by Democrats and climate activists, does.
  2. It makes “all of the above” the law, not just a policy – If you remember, this kinds of strategy — more renewables, and more drilling, at the same time — was a central part of the Obama administration’s energy policy. And you may also remember that emissions did not go down under President Obama. The idea, back in 2011-2016, was that US drilling and emissions were always just about to peak. That sometime in the near future renewables would be SO cheap, that we wouldn’t need to ban fossil fuels, they’d just sort of go away on their own.

It never happened then. And I don’t think it will happen now.

And certainly not if Manchin gets the final item on his wish list: that so called “permitting reform” bill that can’t be passed as part of budget reconciliation. Manchin doesn’t want permitting reform. He’s been clear what he wants is permission. He’s told FERC, DOE, the EPA and any other agency that will (be forced to, because he’s chair of Senate Energy) listen that they should never, ever, block a US energy project —not a pipeline, or an export terminal, or a coal-fired power plant. Nothing.

Manchin’s philosophy is an extension of what I’ve for years called “patriotic hydrocarbons,” and which Rick Perry famously called “molecules of freedom” back when he was Trump’s energy secretary. In a nutshell the idea is that if fossil fuels are “made in America” they are inherently better, cleaner, and safer than any other kind of energy from anywhere else.

It’s ridiculous, of course. The atmosphere doesn’t care whether the lump of coal, therm of gas, or barrel of oil you burn was made in America or made in Saudi Arabia – it’s the same amount of carbon entering the atmosphere, with the same disastrous result. But Manchin’s ‘permitting reform’ would make that legally binding.

Agencies like FERC, DOE, DOI, & BOEM that review and permit pipelines, power plants, compressor stations and export facilities would no longer be able to say whether a project “may” be in the public interest. If the fossil fuel comes from the US, then they MUST permit the facility as being in the public’s interest.

You might think that because agencies like FERC and the Army Corps already say yes to almost 100% of projects that apply for permits, it will not make a lot of difference. And a lot of folks who defend the Manchin-Schumer compromise are quick to point out that just because we lease an acre of land for fossil fuel extraction, doesn’t mean wells will get dug or the fossil fuels burned.

But even if they’re right, Manchin’s plan will make it more-or-less impossible for the climate movement to win a court case that stops pipelines, extraction, or lease sales.

For the last 20-odd years, the courts have been our last and most effective resort to stopping fossil fuel projects. We slowed and eventually stopped the ACP. We’ve ground progress on the Mountain Valley Pipeline to a halt – and pushed the project billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. We stopped KXL, slowed DAPL (still operating illegally, in defiance of a court order), and derailed Line 3 for weeks at a time in the Courts. And we halted all offshore lease sales for the first 6 months of Biden’s presidency – all using lawsuits built on the idea that permitting agencies have a duty to consider climate and environmental impacts.

If Schumer-Manchin passes without amendment, and even worse if Manchin’s ‘build every pipeline’ law passes later in September, it would be a disaster.

It’s all a big gamble

The Manchin-Schumer compromise is a big old budget bill gamble. The well-meaning Democrats who support climate action, and are tweeting a lot about that “40% reduction in emissions” number, are making a bet that if we invest a huge amount of money in both fossil fuels and renewable energy, that renewable energy will end up out-competing fossil fuels to be the power we use to heat our homes, drive our cars, and keep the electricity on. Again, we made that bet under President Obama, and lost damn near every time. But they think this time is different.

They’re also betting that the lives we save — future lives mostly, people not yet born —will be worth more than the people we sacrifice now: Real people, most of them black, brown, indigenous and living in Appalachia, the Gulf south, Permian basin, Alaskan arctic and other frontline extraction communities.

I’m not willing to take that gamble, but I’m also not willing to walk away from the table. As the saying goes, when you got skin in the game you stay in the game. And I still believe that we will win.

One of the most exciting and nerve-wracking things about this moment is that if I’m right – if even half of the stuff in this post is accurate and comes to pass – we’re going to need a lot more digitally supported direct action for the climate.

For one thing, if pipelines and extraction become the law of the land, then stopping pipelines and extraction (as we know we have to in order to stop climate change) will become direct action. A few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade and tried to outlaw abortion, I made a similar argument: Revolution is what happens when the things we need to survive are banned by the state. For those of us who’ve been climate revolutionaries and direct action resistors for a while now, it’s an exciting, vertiginous moment.

For another, those tactics — shutting things down (for a day or days), holding up construction, making it more expensive to build or propose fossil fuels project than renewable ones — may be exactly what’s needed for the big gamble to pay off. If we pour billions into renewables and fossil fuels, but only fossil fuels are met with every manner of obstruction – it makes it more likely the renewables will be built first.

It also requires us to consider, like the recent book ‘how to blow up a pipeline,’ exactly how much we’re willing to risk in order to create that delay.

So, now what?

This is one of those moments in American politics and the climate movement. What happens over the next few weeks will shape the next decade of US climate policy. US climate policy, in turn, will determine whether the United Nations gets on track to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accords, or not. And whether we hit the Paris goals, how close we come to each tenth-of-a-degree goal, will determine the future of life on earth.

No pressure.

We’re just one little group – no staff, a website with a wordy blog, and a big email and social media list (that’s you!) that takes only the best and most meaningful action to protect the planet. But back to an earlier idea, we’re also the fiercest, most hopeful, kids on the block – and we’re willing to put our money, mouths, and bodies on the line to prove it. So here’s what I think we do:

  1. Don’t let up the pressure. We got Manchin back to the table, and all the good stuff in this bill by being unrelenting, disruptive, angry, and at-times impolite. Every petition you signed, every dollar you donated, every meeting or baseball game you disrupted got us this far. So don’t stop. In particular:
    1. Sign up to stay involved with now or never, the action that started with a protest at the Congressional baseball game, and wont end until meaningful climate legislation is signed into law.
    2. Sign now to kick Manchin out of his Senate Energy chair, and weaken his ability to negotiate in the future.
    3. And today we’re delivering your comments to FERC to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Manchin’s personal favorite) and take it off the table as a bargaining chip in the climate deal.
    4. Coming soon we’ll have more actions to push President Biden to declare a climate emergency, hold fossil fueled fascists (and the people who fund them) accountable, and more.
  2. Closely related to #1 – we need to pass a climate deal, but it doesn’t have to be Manchin’s plan. I don’t think we can realistically stop the Manchin Schumer compromise from getting voted on, and I don’t like asking good members of Congress to vote “no” on a bill that has a lot of good things (and a lot of bad things) in it. The good news is that the legislative process is all about compromise and revision. One of our best opportunities will be to have members of the house offer amendments to the bill (they can do that, and Manchin can’t stop them). There’s a lot of pressure to get this bill done fast, but there’s no reason we can’t push for changes and amendments this summer.
  3. Kill Manchin’s ‘build every pipeline’ bill. Last year, Manchin screwed Congressional Democrats when he lied to President Biden and his party by telling them he’d vote for BBB if they voted for the infrastructure bill first, and then refusing to do so (until now). It’s more than reasonable for Democrats, especially the House Progressive Caucus, to refuse to vote for Manchin’s pipeline bill in September, and because the bill has to pass the filibuster and other ‘regular order’ rules, it’s only too easy to shut down Manchin’s bill like he’s done to so many of ours.
  4. Finally, even if we succeed in some places like beating the dirty pipeline bill and reducing the amount of fossil fuel goodies we have to trade for clean energy, chances are that some of Manchin’s dirty deal will slip through. That means that in a few months time, it will probably be law of the United States that some communities get sacrificed to oil and gas extraction. It’s hard to hear, but it’s not that different than the current system – it’s just policy now, and law tomorrow. It means that we’re not going to be able to rely on legal challenges and courts in the same way. That means that we need to be much more willing to consider all the methods of direct action to stop fossil fuels. Lobbying and lawsuits will simply not be as effective if and when something like the Manchin-Schumer compromise is passed. But blockading train tracks, chaining ourselves to boats, singing and dancing in the streets so the extraction crews can’t get through – that will all be just as effective.

And even more important, taking direct action – shutting down the sites of extraction, production, construction, and destruction – will become a critical part of making the big gamble pay off. If we can delay new fossil fuel projects even by a few years, make pipelines 20% more expensive to build, or delay gas export projects by a matter of months — then there’s a decent change the cheaper, cleaner, federally-subsidized renewable alternatives will catch up and surpass them.

Last note – you may have noticed that a lot of the footnotes and references on here come from twitter. That’s the best place to keep up with breaking news on the Manchin-Schumer compromise and other news-y things we work on. Follow along with us (and we’ll follow you back!) at @wealsoherdcats.