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Joe Manchin and the Legal Corruption That Threatens Our Planet

Manchin’s exit should spark a bigger conversation about the corruption that’s become a defining feature of the U.S. political system.


Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced recently that he won’t seek reelection in 2024, but he hasn’t ruled out a potential third-party presidential campaign.

For climate advocates especially, Manchin’s career embodied the incredibly corrosive influence of fossil fuel money in politics. But solving that problem will take a lot more than one senator stepping down. 

The outgoing lawmaker reportedly received more fossil fuel industry campaign money in the last cycle than any other federal legislator — and is himself a coal millionaire. Worse still, he leveraged his perch as the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to enact policies benefiting his corporate donors and himself.

Manchin was the architect of a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act requiring oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters as a condition for any renewable energy leasing. He championed provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that subsidize risky, unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage and hydrogen energy, which greenwash continued fossil fuel production and use.

Perhaps his most infamous climate legacy is a deregulation bill known to the environmental justice movement as “Manchin’s Dirty Deal.” After three failed attempts to pass it by attaching it to must-pass government spending bills, Manchin finally managed to jam it into a bill averting a government default. 

Manchin’s Dirty Deal weakens our environmental laws and undermines the ability of communities to fight polluting projects using the legal system. The bill requires agencies to issue permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline project without the customary review and public comment process — and exempts the permits from legal challenges.

This is a life and death issue for frontline communities who pay the price for polluters’ profits in the form of disproportionately high rates of cancer, asthma and other deadly illnesses. And it has the industry’s footprint — and bank slips — all over it.

Manchin’s fossil fuel haul includes a combined sum of about $66,000 from Mountain Valley Pipeline developers NextEra Energy and Equitrans Midstream, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit focused on tracking money in politics. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who negotiated a backroom deal with Manchin to pass the legislation and appointed him chair of the energy committee in the first place, has himself reportedly received almost $220,000 in campaign contributions from NextEra Energy.

Fossil-fueled corruption is a bipartisan problem. Per OpenSecrets, the top 20 recipients of oil and gas money in Congress include three other Democrats apart from Manchin plus 16 Republicans, including former House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). All took hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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It’s also not a problem confined to the legislative branch. Among many other recent Supreme Court scandals, Justice Clarence Thomas reportedly attended a fundraising event hosted by the right-wing Koch network, even as Koch-aligned organizations have brought cases before the Supreme Court. The Koch family, of course, made its billions in the oil industry.

In the executive branch, the push for false solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon capture and hydrogen, has extensive support from industry-connected officials in the Department of Energy and other executive branch agencies.

Corporate-backed corruption is a feature of state politics as well. A particularly egregious example is the First Energy bribery scandal in Ohio.

Utility company First Energy bribed Larry Householder, the former Speaker of the Ohio House, and Matthew Borges, former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, to get the legislature to pass a bailout of its failing coal and nuclear plants, to be paid by Ohio ratepayers in the form of higher bills. While Householder and Borges are now in prison, First Energy has faced no significant consequences beyond a paltry $230 million fine, which was less than the profit it made in just the second fiscal quarter of 2023.

This kind of pervasive corruption — in both major parties and all branches and levels of government — shouldn’t be normalized. 

Yet it receives very little media scrutiny apart from the coverage of particular scandals, which are often treated as isolated incidents instead of part of a wider pattern. And some things that should be scandals — such as Manchin using his position to enrich his corporate donors at the expense of frontline communities and our shared planetary future — often aren’t treated as scandals at all.

Treatment of any illness has to start with a correct diagnosis. To save our planet and its most vulnerable people, Manchin’s exit should spark a bigger conversation about the corruption that’s become a defining feature of the U.S. political system.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.