This week is a big deal for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has thrown his significant weight in the Senate behind getting Congress to smooth the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
West Virginia sits on the Marcellus Shale and could export significantly more natural gas than it currently does, but it needs to be able to export that gas via pipelines in order to build up industry, which proponents believe could help the state’s bleak economy. Manchin’s grand plan was to offer his support for the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ signature legislative achievement this year, in return for passing a pipeline permitting bill.
That bill is now poised to fail a test vote in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon.
Progressive Democrats oppose the pipeline measure for environmental reasons, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been encouraging Republican senators to vote no, too. The Senate needs to pass a spending bill by this Friday or the government will run out of money — placing big pressure on congressional leaders to get something done, with or without Manchin’s pipeline.
“Coal production is still significant in West Virginia, but it’s not what it once was,” said Hoppy Kercheval, radio host of Morgantown, W.Va.,-based MetroNews Talkline. “Gas has become a more significant player in the state with hydraulic fracturing, and there could be a lot more production if you could ship more of it.”
Kercheval has been reporting on West Virginia for more than 40 years, and Manchin has been a politician in West Virginia for much of that time. Kercheval estimates he’s interviewed Manchin “a thousand times,” and Manchin is a frequent guest on Kercheval’s radio show where, on more than one occasion, Kercheval has been the first to hear Manchin’s position on major legislation.
“It’s going to reflect poorly on Manchin” in deep red West Virginia if he can’t get the pipeline deal passed, Kercheval said. He spoke to Grid about why the pipeline has become so critical to some West Virginians and how Manchin approaches being a Democrat from an increasingly deep red state.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: How did we get here, where Manchin believes he is owed a vote on this pipeline legislation and many Senate Democrats (but few Republicans) are supporting it?
Hoppy Kercheval: What you need to know about Manchin is that he is not an ideologue. He is — I believe — legitimately concerned about West Virginia. He is pro-business. And he is always looking for a deal. He’s looking for ways to get people together and see if you can reach a compromise.
That’s how he was as governor: “We’re going to get everybody around the table and try to work this out.” But when he got to Washington, he was one of 100 senators — the place was antithetical to his nature.
Then, when he became the 50th vote in the Senate, he got in a position where he could make a difference. He has used that to try to do things that he believes are in the best interest of his home state and the country: He is very concerned about the debt and the deficit, so he was not going to sign onto Democrats’ Build Back Better. He thought it was too big, too much. But he kept the door open to a more scaled-down version.
To get that deal on Build Back Better, he said, “I need this pipeline bill,” and his staff essentially wrote this side deal [to be taken up later by the Senate]. I think Manchin viewed that as, “OK, there are some good things in this Inflation Reduction Act, I can get on board with that” — but more importantly, this side deal would help guarantee a route to use these energy resources in West Virginia and to benefit not only the country but his home state, which is a major energy producer.
G: What would this pipeline do?
HK: West Virginia is a major energy-producing state. For years, it has been a coal state, but over the last decade or so natural gas has become a significant player because of hydraulic fracturing. But you need a way to ship the natural gas, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which originates in north central West Virginia, where much of the gas is produced, and will go to Virginia, is a big part of that infrastructure. From a practical and manufacturing standpoint, the pipeline is critically important to that industry. It’s 90-something percent complete, but it’s been held up many, many times over environmental concerns and court challenges.
I should note that there is some opposition to the pipeline in West Virginia. The opposition is pretty much confined to progressives and environmentalists, and they’re pretty outnumbered in West Virginia by those who are interested in benefiting from the pipeline.
West Virginia is sitting on top of some of the world’s biggest supplies of natural gas, and natural gas is instrumental to other industries — but you have to be able to move it. One of the stories we have followed is that the price of natural gas has surged, but producers are like, “What’s the point of moving more if we can’t ship it?” The expanded infrastructure is vital. And we just can’t get it finished.
G: What is Manchin actually proposing?
HK: The side deal has a specific provision saying the relevant [federal] agencies will take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. It’s supposed to help speed things up.
G: You’ve covered Manchin for decades. Is he the same now as he was 20 or 30 years ago?
HK: He is somebody who is truly concerned about people of the state and wants to make a difference in the lives of people. That’s sort of his weather vane. It’s not about party ideology. And that’s gotten increasingly tougher for him in West Virginia as the state has moved farther to the right. When he was first elected 40-something years ago, this was a deep blue state where two-thirds of voters were registered Democrats. Today, Manchin is really the last Democrat standing in West Virginia.
G: If he retires, are there Democrats who might be elected to his seat?
HK: Probably not. I’m not sure if he’s running again in 2024, but there are Republicans lining up to run for that seat in 2024.
G: This pipeline bill has left the other West Virginia senator, Shelley Moore Capito, in an awkward position. She has her own permitting bill, and has been under tremendous pressure from her own party to not help Manchin. What’s Capito and Manchin’s relationship like?
HK: First of all, they both come from these political families. Shelley Moore Capito’s father was governor of West Virginia. And Manchin’s family has been in politics, and he’s been in politics all his life. So they’ve been these political siblings. He’s older than her, but they’ve had these parallel pasts. Now they’re both in the Senate.
They are unfailingly congenial and professional publicly, and they get along. But they’re not besties. But they’re very careful, they don’t go after each other. Like siblings that don’t see eye to eye. This side deal is one of the unusual times when it’s spilled out into the open — Manchin saying he wanted Capito to help whip votes, and Capito basically saying, “I didn’t write the deal, why is it my job to whip votes for it?” That was unusual for it to spill out into public like that.
G: How will it look in West Virginia if Manchin’s permitting bill doesn’t make it into legislation this year?
HK: I think it’s going to reflect poorly on Manchin. Because when Manchin opposed Build Back Better, he got a lot of bump in West Virginia. People texted me and called my show and said, “I’m glad Manchin stood up to [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.], [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-N.Y.] and [President Joe] Biden. I’m glad he stood his ground.”
When he cut the side deal, there was a blowback. People said, “I knew Manchin would cave.” This comes from conservative voters in West Virginia. Manchin’s fallback was, “Yes, but I got this side deal that’s going to be good for West Virginia to complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” If that falls through, what was the point in getting the other deal?
G: You’re known to be Manchin’s go-to journalist in West Virginia. How did that come to be?
HK: I’m 67 years old. I’ve covered news in West Virginia all my life. And Joe Manchin has been in public office all his life. I’ve interviewed him a thousand times. Now that he’s the 50th vote [in the Senate], I’m not doing anything different and he’s not doing anything different in terms of our relationship. I talk to him now as much as I did previously, it’s just that he’s the 50th vote. So it’s not like we got together and said, “Ok now we’re going to have some special relationship.” It’s just that he’s in this absolutely pivotal position.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.