Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) requested a meeting between a campaign donor that had a stake in the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the agency advised against issuing permits for part of the pipeline’s construction, according to emails obtained by TYT.
The emails, which TYT requested under the Freedom of Information Act, were sent in August 2021. They show a lobbyist for Equitrans Midstream reaching out to Manchin for help arranging a meeting with EPA Administrator Michael Regan, and two Manchin staffers stepping in to assist.
The MVP pipeline has been fought for years by local communities in Virginia and Manchin’s home of West Virginia. But Manchin has actively pushed the project, and last summer made a deal to support Democratic legislation in return for party leadership backing legislation to ram the pipeline through.
Manchin ultimately got his wish in legislation that passed earlier this month to suspend the debt ceiling.
But two years before that, Manchin was working behind the scenes to make the EPA be more responsive to Equitrans. Manchin has gotten more than $79,000 from executives and the political action committees of both Equitrans and NextEra, a company in which Equitrans is the majority shareholder and which has invested in the MVP.
On May 27, 2021, the EPA wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers, advising against issuing a permit to let the MVP cross hundreds of streams in West Virginia and Virginia. The EPA letter said that the agency had “identified a number of substantial concerns.”
The EPA concluded that the MVP “may not comply with” Clean Water Act guidelines. “EPA recommends that the permit not be issued” without changes, the letter says. The EPA’s letter became public shortly afterward, when the letter was obtained by environmental activists and published.
Although the letter is addressed to the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA’s concerns should also have been fatal to the pipeline’s prospects for a permit from the state of Virginia, the activists argued.
On August 4, less than two months after the EPA letter, Equitrans lobbyist Michael Killion emailed Armando Avila, then a senior staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Manchin still chairs. Killion said that he’s “Just looking for some guidance/assistance” getting a meeting with Regan.
Specifically, Killon says that Manchin wanted Equitrans to meet with the EPA, but that the company hadn’t been able to get it scheduled:
“The Senator requested that we meet with EPA Administrator Michael Regan. We have made several attempts for a meeting with EPA over the past few months with no success.”
Killon never specifies the purpose of the meeting, but in the next sentence appears to refer to the May 27 EPA letter, saying, “In the meantime, EPA has issued a letter to the Army Corps raising serious issues with MVP.”
He concludes, “Please let me know if you have any suggestions.”
Avila, the Energy Committee staffer, apparently shared the email with other Manchin staffers, because two days later, Manchin’s then-legislative assistant, Phil Hancock, forwards the Equitrans email to the EPA.
Hancock adds his own message in his Aug. 6 email, which he sends to then-EPA Deputy Administrator Radha Adhar. Hancock amplifies the request for help from Equitrans, asking Adhar “could you get us a status update on a meeting request made by Equitrans?”
At some point beforehand, Hancock reveals, “The Senator met with them [Equitrans] recently and recommended they meet with [Regan].”
Adhar responds in his own email later the same day: “You bet. Happy to help.”
The documents provided by the EPA don’t address whether the Regan/Equitrans meeting happened, or whether Equitrans rectified the problems.
But in December 2021, four months later, permits were granted to MVP by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). (Neither Manchin’s office, Equitrans, nor the EPA commented to TYT on the emails.)
Other challenges to the pipeline persisted over the course of 2022, but completion of the controversial pipeline has now been assured, after Pres. Joe Biden agreed to include the MVP in the debt-ceiling law along with other measures expediting energy projects over community opposition.
The MVP, which has faced yearslong delays due to environmental violations and community pushback, will carry natural gas over 300 miles from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia to southern Virginia once construction finishes.
Other provisions of the debt-ceiling law include reducing local power to oppose energy projects by changing the jurisdiction for legal challenges to be heard in federal appeals courts.
Manchin was initially promised energy-project permitting changes last year by Sen. Maj. Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in exchange for Manchin backing Biden's Inflation Reduction Act.
According to the Washington Post, Manchin was enlisted by Republicans to help them craft the debt-ceiling deal with the White House. In the final week of talks, the Post reported, Manchin called the White House and pressed them to accept the MVP provisions, which Biden ultimately did.
Like other energy projects generally, the MVP is expected to have a disproportionate impact on low-income and non-white communities.
Democratic efforts to strike the MVP language from the debt-limit deal failed in both chambers of Congress. Environmental justice groups are continuing to protest the project but it’s not clear whether they have any remaining recourse.
As TYT previously reported, Equitrans and NextEra are major donors to Manchin and other congressional allies. Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that Manchin has received at least $79,350 in donations from executives and the political action committees of the two companies.
The two companies started giving to Manchin as early as 2018, when NextEra PAC gave him $1000. The two PACs gave him a total of $7000 prior to June 2021.
The first time Manchin got donations directly from employees of the two companies was three weeks before the EPA advised the Army Corps of Engineers not to issue the MVP permit. Two Equitrans executives on the same day, May 7, 2021, gave Manchin $2900 each, the maximum allowed by law. One month later, in June 2021, as its majority shareholder was seeking a meeting with Regan, NextEra PAC gave Manchin $2000.
After Manchin’s office intervened, no more Equitrans executives donated to him, but NextEra executives started to. In the two years since, they've given Manchin a total of $52,950. Starting in 2022, the PACs for both companies have given Manchin at least a combined $23,500.
Both Equitrans and NextEra also donated to Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV), who participated in the debt-ceiling negotiations. On May 23 of this year, members of Miller’s staff met with Equitrans CEO Thomas Karam and American Petroleum Institute (API) lobbyist Lance West, Manchin’s former chief of staff, the Washington Post reported. Equitrans is a member of the API, a fossil-fuel advocacy organization.
Five days later, the Post reported, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) called Miller. “We got Mountain Valley Pipeline done,” he said.
TYT Washington Correspondent Candice Cole was previously a correspondent and senior White House producer for the Black News Channel and has worked at a number of local news outlets. You can find her on Twitter @CandiceColeNews.