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A closer look at the Mountain Valley Pipeline greenlit in debt ceiling deal

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

The federal government finally managed to raise the debt ceiling to avoid default and potential economic catastrophe at the 11th hour, but the bill which achieves that, dubbed the Fiscal Responsibility Act, does a lot more than just lift the debt limit. It also expands work requirements for some benefit recipients, ends the moratorium on federal student loan repayment and fast tracks the long-stalled, controversial Mountain Valley pipeline across West Virginia and into Virginia. NPR's Dave Mistich takes a look at that natural gas line, the controversy surrounding it and why it's included in this legislation.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Maury Johnson was in a bit of a rush earlier this week. He was in the middle of a four-hour drive, barreling down the road from his home in Monroe County, W. Va., toward Washington, D.C.

MAURY JOHNSON: Can you just hang on a second? I'm going to - I can't stop at this guy's driveway.

MISTICH: The 62-year-old former teacher and farmer had planned on a relaxing Memorial Day to kick off the summer. Instead, Johnson learned that legislation to lift the nation's debt ceiling included a section that would greenlight the Mountain Valley Pipeline, so he packed up again and got back on the road.

JOHNSON: I've been up there a lot this spring - two weeks, one week, and I was home for a few days and back up there for 2 1/2 weeks just lobbying, talking to Congress and telling how bad this is.

MISTICH: First proposed in 2014, the more than 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, stretches across the heart of West Virginia and into Virginia. It cuts through a national forest and through Johnson's property. Work on the MVP has been off and on since 2018, as landowners and other opponents have brought a number of court challenges against the project. Johnson says the construction that has been accomplished has caused all sorts of problems.

JOHNSON: Just myself, I have documented 240 or more water resource problems all across the state, all the way from Mobley, W. Va., where this thing starts, all the way to the top of Peters Mountain on the border of Virginia and Monroe County.

MISTICH: A spokesperson for Equitrans, one of the five companies behind the MVP and its majority owner, says the pipeline has been subject to an unprecedented level of legal and regulatory review. But they're excited about this legislation to raise the debt ceiling and finish the pipeline. The first person they thanked by name - Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MANCHIN: Nothing has ever been through a review process - that we've been told - in modern day has been reviewed as much as this MVP.

MISTICH: Manchin has been pushing to get this thing done for a long time. He says it's about securing energy independence, and that's why he was hopeful it would be included in the debt ceiling deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANCHIN: I've talked to all the negotiators on both sides of the aisle - Kevin McCarthy and his team and the president and his team. Yes. And I said, you know, on that, this is something that can put this much production this quickly into the line.

MISTICH: Russell Chisholm, managing director of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition, based in Newport, Va., says the American public shouldn't have to choose between a national default and the MVP pipeline, which has been plagued by environmental concerns.

RUSSELL CHISHOLM: I think Joe Manchin likes to point to this as some sort of regulatory bureaucracy and red tape that has been slowing things down. The project never should have been approved.

MISTICH: Manchin isn't the only West Virginian championing the MVP. Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito is also hailing its inclusion. She noted the debt limit bill will redirect all the court challenges, putting those decisions solely in the hands of the D.C.-based Circuit Court of Appeals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: After many, many attempts in the court to shut the entire thing down, it's time to bring it to a close, and this agreement brings it to a close.

MISTICH: Even though the debt ceiling looms over the pipeline fight this time, the passage of the bill doesn't lessen the controversy in the Appalachian Mountains. Opponents of the MVP say they'll continue their fight against the project, legally and otherwise.

Dave Mistich, NPR News, Morgantown, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.