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Powerful US Senator Joe Manchin Loves the Oilsands. Now What?

First he stymied Biden’s climate bill. Then he tied Canada to his obstructive agenda.

Geoff Dembicki 21 Apr 2022TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

Earlier this month, one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in the U.S. accepted an invitation from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and flew to the heart of the oilsands.

Once there, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin toured a large open-pit bitumen mine operated by Suncor, and then visited Cenovus’s Christina Lake facility, which uses high-pressure injections of steam to extract 250,000 barrels of oil from the ground every day.

Manchin is chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He’s used his influence to stall and eviscerate President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda, earning him the description “Enemy Number One” by at least one advocate for low-carbon policies.

The senator did nothing to shake that identity as he hobnobbed with Kenney on the premier’s own turf. Manchin, reportedly impressed by his experience in Alberta, said he was “honoured” to see for himself the world’s fourth biggest oil reserves.

“Canada, like the United States, is blessed with abundant natural resources that can be used to eliminate our dependence on Russian and Chinese energy,” Manchin said.

So what does it all mean? For starters, Canada’s oil patch has a new friend in very high places in Washington, who is likely to use talk of the oilsands’ strategic importance to fend off what might be the last, best chance for Congress to make much progress against climate change.

In fact, Manchin called for a “North American Energy Alliance,” with the oilsands as a lynchpin, which his office claimed “can strengthen our collective energy security while combatting climate change and promoting global peace and stability.”

“There shouldn’t be a barrier because we have a border,” the senator said in Alberta. “That border should be invisible when it comes to energy and the climate and the responsibilities we have as citizens on this Earth.”

“Senator Manchin is a powerful friend and ally for Alberta within the United States Senate, including with the Biden Administration,” Justin Brattinga, Kenney’s press secretary, wrote in an email to The Tyee.

It’s a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the oilsands, which early in the pandemic was facing its worst-ever existential crisis as the price of oil tanked and some large financial organizations divested due to concerns about the industry’s large greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, oilsands revenues are roaring due to high oil prices buoyed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And following Manchin’s visit, the industry now has an advocate who holds the tie-breaking vote between Democrats and Republicans in a closely divided U.S. Senate.

“There’s definitely a lot of symbolism in him going to Alberta,” Ben Cahill told The Tyee. Cahill is a senior fellow in energy security and climate change at a Washington, D.C., think tank called the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Manchin is the person who brought Biden’s Build Back Better Act to a screeching halt last December when he said he wouldn’t support it,” Cahill said of a $3.5 trillion spending package that contained arguably the most aggressive climate policies ever proposed by the U.S. government. “He is the essential vote in any climate and energy bill.”

The Tyee reached out to Manchin’s office with a list of questions but didn’t receive a response to them.

Previous U.S. president Donald Trump was a vocal supporter of the now-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to stretch from the oilsands to the Texas Gulf Coast. But industry supporters say Manchin, who despite his refusal to support Biden’s legislative priorities is frequently described as a consensus-seeking “moderate” in the U.S. political conversation, could be a potentially more effective ally.

“The problem is that Donald Trump is so polarizing that when he takes an opinion on something other people automatically take the opposite opinion just because it’s him,” Robbie Picard, founder of the Fort McMurray-based advocacy organization Oil Sands Strong, told The Tyee. “It would be nice to have a powerful ally in the States like [Manchin].”

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A climate change demonstrator mocks Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia who has blocked President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, at the Capitol in Washington, DC, in October 2021. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, the Associated Press.

On paper Kenney and Manchin don’t have much in common. Kenney is leader of the United Conservative Party, and Manchin belongs to a Democratic Party that for years has been moving further to the left. But both represent jurisdictions dominated by fossil fuels.

Days before Manchin departed for the oilsands, 16 activists were arrested and jailed overnight for blockading a West Virginia coal power plant closely linked to the Democratic senator. That facility, known as the Grant Town Power Plant, burns waste coal in part provided by Enersystems, a coal company founded by Manchin in 1988.

Though Manchin years ago moved his holdings into a blind trust to comply with federal conflict of interest rules, he personally earns nearly $500,000 per year from his non-public shares in Enersystems, according to public records. Because of the low-quality coal that it burns, Grant Town is one of the most polluting power facilities in the entire state.

“Our part of the country has been used as a dumping ground,” said Dee Thomas, a West Virginia local who took part in the blockade.

But Manchin is also tightly linked to oil and gas. He has received $687,745 in campaign donations from the industry in the current election cycle, according to the lobbying watchdog organization OpenSecrets, which is more than any other senator or congressperson.

“Joe Manchin, I talk to his office every week,” said Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy last year, unaware that he was being secretly videotaped by Greenpeace activists. McCoy, who was later let go by Exxon after the video was made public, called Manchin a “kingmaker” who could be reliably depended on to stick up for the oil and gas industry’s interests.

The U.S. senator proved critical during negotiations over the Build Better Act, the $3.5 trillion spending package that at one point contained provisions — including a clean energy standard for utilities, regulations on methane emissions and tax credits for electric vehicles — with the potential to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by one billion tonnes within the next decade, according to calculations from the research organization Rhodium Group.

Citing concerns about “the reliability of our electric grid” and inflation, Manchin voted no against the package last December, meaning it had no chance of passing the Senate and becoming law.

“What Canadians need to be aware of about Joe Manchin is that he has been the number one obstructionist within the Democratic party,” Mitch Jones, managing director of advocacy programs and policy at the U.S. environmental group Food & Water Watch, told The Tyee. “If there was a wanted poster for Enemy Number One in Congress when it comes to climate, you would have to put Joe Manchin on that poster.”

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Kenney and Manchin talked up a ‘North American Energy Alliance,’ with Alberta’s oilsands a lynchpin. Photo via Alberta government.

During his recent visit, the West Virginia senator said he’ll soon be inviting Kenney to Congress. Manchin wants the Alberta premier to testify about the geopolitical importance of the oilsands at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Kenney should tell Americans “what you do, how you do it, and how well you do it,” Manchin advised. 

This is a major win for the Alberta government, which recently spent $3 million on contracts with lobbying firms that have touted their access to key U.S. government officials, according to a report from OpenSecrets. One of the firms reportedly working with Alberta is Capitol Counsel, whose partners include Jonathan Kott, a former advisor to Sen. Manchin.

Alberta is also working with JDA Frontline Partners, led by a former communications director for the Republican National Committee named Trevor Francis. The firm’s “media strategy revolves almost entirely around positioning the Alberta oil and gas industry as a secure, reliable and environmentally responsible energy supplier,” OpenSecrets reported.

But that won’t be easy, even with well-connected lobbying firms, a powerful Senate ally and large print ads in the Washington Post.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle to sell that message to the rest of the world,” Cahill said. “There is this fixed perception of oilsands as dirty emissions-intensive oil and that’s going to be hard to change.”

If anything, Manchin’s involvement with Alberta gives groups opposed to oilsands expansion an opportunity to broaden their fight.

“While Manchin travels the world chasing bad ideas, people are ready for a new economy,” said Winona LaDuke, founder of the Indigenous-led environmental group Honor the Earth, which is currently fighting against Enbridge’s Line 3 oilsands project in Minnesota.

“The water protectors facing trial for resisting the Line 3 pipeline, folks in Canada and the First Nations battling the devastation of the tarsands, and the folks in West Virginia who stood up against Manchin's corrupt coal waste operation all want the same thing: a chance to live good lives free from pollution.”  [Tyee]

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