Energy & Environment — Manchin permitting tradeoff roils activists

Climate activists warn a deal on permitting reform could bring new environmental issues. We’ll also look at why gas is dropping below $4 and another House committee chair wanting answers from oil companies. 

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe here.

Manchin’s buy-in costly for environmental reviews

In order to win Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) support for their climate legislation, Democrats are poised to carry out policy changes that might directly help one of the senator’s pet projects, but that activists say could hurt low-income voters and people of color. 

On Monday, Manchin revealed the details of a plan to speed up environmental reviews of potentially polluting projects that was part of the deal he made with Democratic leadership. 

What are the details? The deal appears to pertain to both the environmental review process broadly and more immediately to a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia that he has long sought. 

“Completing this pipeline will increase supply [and] strengthen American energy security,” Manchin tweeted Tuesday. 

Now for the catch: But environmental justice advocates, who object to the pipeline’s approval, say that the agreement could undermine the entire review process, subjecting already disadvantaged groups to an even greater share of the country’s pollution burden. 

When Manchin announced last week that he would move forward with climate and tax provisions that Democrats have been clamoring for, he said that Democrats would also advance “commonsense permitting reforms” this fall. 

  • The agreement, detailed in a Monday fact sheet, would set time limits for how long environmental reviews can take: two years for major projects and one year for those with less of an impact. It would also require the president to keep a list of 25 energy projects that are prioritized. 
  • And it essentially gives states a one-year time limit to veto infrastructure projects such as pipelines that run through their waters, while clarifying that water quality impacts of the activity itself must be the basis of the review. 

Read more about the tradeoffs here.

Gas nears $4, but hurricanes may bring new pain 

The average price of gas is approaching $4 a gallon nationwide, part of a nearly
60-day decline from unprecedented spikes earlier this year.  

However, experts say Mother Nature could send prices back up in a hurry as the Gulf Coast’s hurricane season picks up.   

  • As of Wednesday, the national average for gas prices was $4.163, the latest in a 50-day decline, according to data from AAA. At the state level, numerous states, predominantly in the southeastern U.S., are already below $4, with the lowest average prices — $3.667 — in Texas.  
  • How we got here: The decline follows a period earlier this year when average prices reached an all-time high of $5 in June, according to data compiled by GasBuddy. A number of atypical factors, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to pent-up demand as pandemic restrictions ended, contributed to the price spike. The factors pushing it back down can be hard to predict as well. 

Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, noted that much of the recent decline is likely tied to fears of an economic downturn. “The market oil prices are reflecting the rising risk that if we do see a recession it’s going to be lower oil consumption,” DeHaan said.  

However, he added, “not only that, we have seen some increase in gasoline inventories over the last really six weeks or so. And that’s also maybe contributing to some of the decline.”  

Devin Gladden, AAA National’s manager for federal affairs, said that apart from some spikes around the holidays, the U.S. gas market is “roughly in line” with where it was before the pandemic caused demand to collapse in early 2020.  

  • Gladden described the downward trend as “a weird case where it’s pretty much trending like it was when we saw severe COVID precautions and those factors are leading prices to continue to decline.” 
  • Meanwhile, he added, anxiety about a recession is “having an impact on oil prices, in particular, because there’s a concern that if economic growth stalls or we enter a recession … that could potentially impact global crude demand.”  
  • “That’s why the market is concerned because when demand declines, pricing typically follows and so they’re hedging against potentially lower prices,” he added. 

Read more about the decline here. 

Dem questions oil companies after record profits

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) is questioning the country’s biggest oil companies after they posted record profits amid high oil and gasoline prices.  

Pallone sent letters to Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Shell demanding answers about the companies’ latest earning reports and taking aim at the companies’ use of the profits for stock buybacks, which give more money to shareholders.  

“As one of the largest private oil companies in the world, your company is positioned to help alleviate Americans’ pain at the pump, but I am concerned that you are more focused on rewarding company executives and shareholders,” he wrote to each of the companies.    

Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP have said in recent weeks that they made
$17.9 billion, $11.6 billion, $11.5 billion and $8.45 billion respectively between April and June of this year — when energy prices were soaring. They also announced that they expect to buy back more shares of their stocks, giving more money to shareholders by increasing the price of their stocks.  

  • In the letters, Pallone asked for information about how the profits will impact spending on executives, stock buybacks, dividends that the companies pay to shareholders and spending on both fossil fuel and renewable energy production.  
  • He also said that his committee is “investigating what oil companies could and should be doing to help bring down gas prices.” 

Gasoline prices on Wednesday were around $4.16 per gallon on average in the U.S., down more than 85 cents from their peak in June. But the $4.16 figure may still feel high to consumers, as prices are still up by about a dollar compared to a year ago.  

The letters come as Democrats seek to pin the blame for high oil prices on fuel companies, with the House having passed legislation in May that would outlaw selling fuel at an “excessive” price during an energy emergency. 

Read more about the letters here. 

UN WARNS TWO LARGEST RESERVOIRS AT ‘DANGEROUSLY LOW LEVELS’

The United Nations warned on Tuesday that the two biggest water reservoirs in the United States have dwindled to “dangerously low levels” due to the impacts of climate change. 

The situation has become so severe that these reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are on the verge of reaching “dead pool status” — the point at which water levels drop so low that downstream flow ceases, according to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).   

Without such flow, hydroelectric power stations would cease to operate, jeopardizing the electricity supply for millions in the region, a statement from the agency said.   

“The conditions in the American West, which we’re seeing around the Colorado River basin, have been so dry for more than 20 years that we’re no longer speaking of a drought,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt, an ecosystems expert at UNEP. 

“We refer to it as ‘aridification’ — a new very dry normal,” Bernhardt added. 

Read more from The Hill’s Sharon Udasin. 

ICYMI

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Your AC can be cut off in a heat wave over an unpaid energy bill (Vox) 
  • Manchin Deal Tosses $30 Billion Lifeline to US Nuclear Reactors (Bloomberg
  • EPA to clean up South Jersey Superfund site that emits ‘harmful vapors’ into homes, businesses (The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • The End of Snow Threatens to Upend 76 Million American Lives (Bloomberg
  • Nuclear Power Plants Could Stay Open, Says Germany (The Wall Street Journal

🐱 And finally, today’s lighter clickNot bad for a cat named “Bandit.”  

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow.  

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