WASHINGTON – In a sign of a deepening rift among Democrats on energy issues, conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin says he will not move forward on President Joe Biden’s nominee to oversee oil and gas leasing at the Interior Department.
Manchin, of West Virginia, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has great influence on energy and environmental issues in the closely divided Senate. In an op-ed Friday, he cited a leaked memo signed by nominee Laura Daniel-Davis that proposed charging oil companies higher rates for drilling off the Alaska coast.
Manchin said the higher rates backed by Daniel-Davis for the proposed drilling project in Alaska's Cook Inlet "were explicitly designed to decrease fossil energy production at the expense of our energy security.''
Even though he had supported Daniel-Davis in the past, "I cannot, in good conscience, support her or anyone else who will play partisan politics and agree with this misguided and dangerous manipulation of the law,'' Manchin wrote in the Houston Chronicle.
The dispute over Daniel-Davis's nomination comes as the Biden administration nears a decision on a major oil project in Alaska that many environmental groups say would be a blight on Biden’s climate legacy.
Climate activists are outraged that Biden appears open to the huge Willow project on Alaska's North Slope, which they call a “carbon bomb” that would break his campaign pledge to curtail oil drilling on public lands and waters.
Approval of the project would risk alienating young voters who have urged stronger climate action by the White House as Biden approaches a 2024 reelection campaign.
At the same time, Alaska Native leaders with ties to the petroleum-rich North Slope support ConocoPhillips Alaska’s proposal. They say the Willow Project would bring much-needed jobs and billions of dollars in taxes and mitigation funds to the vast, snow- and ice-covered region nearly 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Anchorage.
Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state lawmakers also support the project.
Daniel-Davis, who currently serves as Interior's principal deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals management, would not directly decide the fate of the Willow project, but Manchin and Alaska's two Republican senators have criticized what they consider her lukewarm support for oil drilling on public lands and water. Daniel-Davis oversees Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
She was first nominated for the assistant secretary position nearly two years ago, but her bid has stalled because of the concerns of Manchin and Senate Republicans. Biden renominated her for the post in January.
In a statement Friday, the White House said Biden "nominated Laura Daniel-Davis because she has worked to conserve public lands, protect wildlife and address climate change for three decades, while prioritizing a collaborative and partnership-based approach. She is well-qualified for this position and we look forward to her moving forward in the confirmation process.''
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, said Interior was “very disappointed” to learn of Manchin's opposition to Daniel-Davis after he supported her during two committee hearings and votes over the past two years.
“Laura Daniel-Davis has served this administration, as she has two others, with a dedication that we should aspire to see in every public servant,'' Schwartz said in an email. “She will continue to lead this portfolio at Interior and implement President Biden’s direction, stated consistently and clearly since Day One, with respect to carefully balancing the role that public lands and waters play as we face the climate crisis."
Daniel-Davis is one of several Biden nominees whom Manchin has opposed. Another is Gigi Sohn, who withdrew her nomination to the Federal Communications Commission after Manchin opposed her.
Manchin also voted against Daniel Werfel's nomination to lead the Internal Revenue Service. Werfel was confirmed Thursday with support from several Republicans.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the energy panel, hailed Manchin's latest announcement. “Laura Daniel-Davis has done everything she can to undermine American energy production. As I have said before, her nomination should be withdrawn,'' Barrasso tweeted.
But Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the liberal Center for Western Priorities, called Manchin's “flip-flop” on Daniel-Davis “baffling, hypocritical and short-sighted.'' Daniel-Davis will continue to oversee oil and gas leasing in her current role, “with or without Manchin’s support for a promotion,'' Rokala said. "But now the White House and Interior Department have no reason to keep catering to Manchin’s whims.''
In his op-ed, Manchin sharply criticized the Biden administration’s implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, a key climate, tax and health care bill that Manchin helped craft.
“While the Biden administration has continued to play political games and incorrectly frame the IRA as a climate change legislation, the truth is that the IRA is about securing America’s energy independence for the coming century,'' Manchin wrote.
“The Biden administration continues to ignore congressional intent on critical components of the IRA ... to illogically advance a partisan climate agenda and appease radical activists,'' Manchin added. He said the Interior and Treasury departments “have explicitly and unabashedly violated the letter of the law ... in an effort to elevate climate goals above the energy and national security of this nation."
Manchin has repeatedly slammed Treasury for issuing guidelines that allow car makers in Europe and Asia to bypass requirements that significant portions of electric-vehicle batteries be produced in North America.
“This is wrong and it must stop,'' Manchin wrote.