‘Unconditional friend’: Meet the man shadowing Manchin

He leveraged his connections with Manchin to enter the federal lobbying scene for the primary time final yr, a transfer that put massive vitality corporations inside earshot of Manchin as he was molding President Joe Biden’s historic local weather invoice to incorporate prizes for the fossil gasoline business.

The kinship sheds new mild on Manchin’s closeness to the business, at a time when oil and gasoline corporations are dealing with authorized assaults and criticism from congressional Democrats over their position in international warming. Puccio’s ascent into federal lobbying got here simply earlier than Manchin diluted, or jettisoned, a few of the strongest provisions Biden’s allies had proposed to cut back the ability sector’s greenhouse gasoline emissions.

When requested if he and Puccio had mentioned sure particulars of the local weather and vitality payments, Manchin mentioned, “He’s an unconditional pal, and I speak to all my unconditional buddies.”

It’s been that means for a half-century.

To start with, Manchin, then in his 20s, was a former highschool soccer star and inheritor to a Marion County political dynasty. Puccio was a wavy-haired teenager who got here as much as Manchin’s shoulder.

They grew shut within the Nineteen Eighties, when Manchin had a carpet enterprise in a Fairmont strip mall, the place Puccio bought organs. Each of their companies finally failed.

However Manchin would quickly ascend in state politics — and within the personal sector, as an proprietor of a coal transport firm.

Puccio was at his facet as a pal, an adviser after which a lobbyist.

Some name him a “Manchin whisperer.”

“There’s lots of people who want Larry to clearly have an in with Joe,” mentioned Roman Prezioso, a former Democratic state senator and lifelong pal of Manchin who grew up down the street from him in Marion County. “In the event you obtained an ace, you bought to play it, and it’s made him very, very wealthy, and he’s been capable of decide up quite a lot of purchasers.”

Puccio’s success accelerated in 2021, when Manchin was sworn in as chair of the Vitality and Pure Assets Committee. Puccio started rostering federal vitality purchasers inside weeks of Manchin taking the gavel.

Since then, Manchin’s legislative work has stood to learn Puccio’s purchasers. That features provisions in two of Biden’s sign achievements, this yr’s Inflation Discount Act and final yr’s bipartisan infrastructure regulation. Manchin was a key architect of each measures.

The legal guidelines include billions of {dollars} for plugging methane leaks, capping deserted oil and gasoline wells, establishing hydrogen services powered by pure gasoline and constructing carbon seize services.

Past that was Manchin’s specific situation that the Mountain Valley pipeline, a contentious pure gasoline undertaking, should be accomplished in alternate for his vote on main local weather laws.

Puccio’s largest shopper is a key beneficiary of the potential pipeline — a gaggle of vitality corporations referred to as the Appalachian Pure Fuel Operators Coalition. The group has paid Puccio’s agency at the least $405,000 since July 2021, in response to federal lobbying data.

In September, amid sharp opposition from each Democratic and Republican senators, Manchin withdrew a invoice that might have pressured federal companies to allow the pipeline. However he vowed to revive the problem.

‘Vitality corporations begging him’

Earlier than all that, within the months earlier than the flurry of legislative motion that started in 2021, Puccio positioned himself as a bridge between the vitality world and Manchin.

“He mentioned he had vitality corporations begging him to open an workplace in D.C. as a result of he had entry to Joe, and that made it simpler for him to do enterprise there than in West Virginia,” mentioned Scott Sears, a former Manchin adviser and a previous government director of the West Virginia Democratic Social gathering who has been buddies with Puccio for many years. “He mentioned it was due to all the pieces Joe was doing as chair of the vitality committee.”

The cash has poured in, incomes Puccio at the least $766,000 since January 2021, federal lobbying data present.

On the identical time, Manchin was taking steps to advance the Mountain Valley pipeline, which might carry pure gasoline from West Virginia to Virginia. A memo he drafted for Senate Majority Chief Chuck Schumer spelled out Manchin’s situations for supporting the local weather invoice, which Congress handed in August. The list of demands contains this requirement on the finish: “Full the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Manchin has supported the undertaking for years, however the memo — and the pipeline’s later inclusion in his failed vitality allowing invoice — coincided with Puccio’s enlargement into federal lobbying.

Puccio mentioned in a short interview that he has not personally lobbied on the pipeline.

“I’ve not labored on that subject of the pipeline in any respect,” he mentioned.

Nonetheless, corporations that make up his largest shopper — the Appalachian Pure Fuel Operators Coalition — would both construct the pipeline, transport gasoline by it or use the pipeline to justify drilling further gasoline wells. Puccio is listed as a lobbyist for the coalition, federal records show.

The coalition contains Equitrans Midstream Corp., which is enjoying a number one position within the pipeline’s building. It additionally contains NextEra Vitality, a utility big and a associate on the pipeline, and Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp., which might use the pipe to ship pure gasoline.

Different corporations belonging to the coalition — Cabot Oil and Fuel and Diversified Vitality Co. — may benefit from elevated gasoline manufacturing within the area.

Not one of the corporations concerned within the Appalachian Pure Fuel Operators Coalition responded to requests for remark.

Friendship and politics

Puccio has been at Manchin’s facet throughout every step of his rise by West Virginia politics, from the state legislature to secretary of state to governor after which the U.S. Senate.

He has served as Manchin’s marketing campaign supervisor, the pinnacle of his political motion committee and chief of the state Democratic Social gathering.

Neither man needed to discuss their relationship or whether or not it was serving to Puccio affect federal coverage on behalf of his purchasers.

“I don’t suppose I have to be explaining to you what I do with my purchasers. You’ve requested me a query and I’ve answered, and that’s as a lot as I’ve to say,” Puccio mentioned in a short phone interview lately. “You’re asking me about my personal enterprise and what I do, and I don’t suppose that’s acceptable.”

Manchin additionally declined to reply questions on whether or not his friendship with Puccio has influenced his actions. However Manchin didn’t deny he had talked to Puccio in regards to the pipeline.

“I’ve identified him since he was a toddler,” Manchin mentioned in September within the Capitol. “We’ve got an excellent relationship.”

Puccio’s final official position with Manchin was as his chief of workers, the highest job within the governor’s workplace. He stop in 2010. Days later, he turned a lobbyist for resorts and vitality corporations that needed entry to probably the most highly effective politician in Charleston.

His fast shift from senior authorities adviser to lobbyist alarmed state lawmakers, who handed a regulation requiring a one-year “cooling off” interval for officers who needed to change into lobbyists.

Considered one of Puccio’s first purchasers in 2010 was Allegheny Vitality, which merged with FirstEnergy Corp. the next yr. FirstEnergy, one of many nation’s largest electrical utilities, has been a Puccio shopper ever since.

The utility has one other connection to Manchin: Its subsidiary Mon Energy buys electrical energy from a West Virginia energy plant that’s the largest buyer of Manchin’s household coal enterprise, Enersystems.

That has created a triangle of connections that blur Manchin’s political and enterprise pursuits: The Manchin household firm delivers coal to the plant, which sells energy to FirstEnergy, which employs Puccio to foyer lawmakers.

Since 2010, Manchin has earned greater than $5 million from Enersystems, his household’s enterprise. The corporate transports waste coal to Grant City, the one plant in West Virginia that also burns the slurry of cast-off coal and rock trucked by Enersystems from a closed mine close by. Enersystems is run by Manchin’s son, Joe Manchin IV.

E&E Information has beforehand reported that Puccio helped negotiate a deal between Mon Energy and the homeowners of the Grant City energy plant in 2006. The settlement hiked the plant’s energy charges on prospects and prolonged Mon Energy’s dedication to promote the plant’s electrical energy by six years, providing a lifeline to the financially distressed coal plant.

The deal was accepted by the state’s public service fee, which was led on the time by a Manchin appointee.

A tangle of lobbying purchasers

Puccio’s latest enlargement into federal lobbying comes years after he constructed considered one of West Virginia’s most profitable lobbying companies. He continues to characterize 27 purchasers in West Virginia, state lobbying disclosures show. They embody the household companies of Republican Gov. Jim Justice, such because the Greenbrier resort and the coal firm Bluestone Assets.

As he did with Manchin, Puccio has labored as a senior marketing campaign adviser for Justice, although it meant turning his again on his longtime Democratic roots.

It’s unclear how a lot cash Puccio has obtained from his West Virginia purchasers, as a result of state regulation doesn’t require corporations to reveal their lobbying funds.

In Washington, Puccio’s worth as a lobbyist largely depends on his relationship with Manchin, mentioned Mike McKenna, a longtime vitality lobbyist who suggested the Trump White Home.

Due to that friendship, he has some weight within the insular circle of Washington lobbyists.

“However in all probability not as a lot as he thinks he does,” McKenna mentioned.

Nonetheless, lots of Puccio’s purchasers have seen potential windfalls of federal cash on account of laws that Manchin helped write, such because the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure regulation of final yr and the Inflation Discount Act’s inclusion of $369 billion in clear vitality spending.

Considered one of his largest purchasers is Diversified Vitality, which holds about 70,000 oil and gasoline wells throughout the US, a quantity that exceeds Exxon Mobil Corp.’s wells. The corporate is a part of the Appalachian Pure Fuel Operators Coalition.

Diversified makes a speciality of buying dying wells, a technique that may lengthen the lifetime of oil and gasoline extraction websites the place excessive ranges of planet-warming methane usually escape from business tools. The corporate has lately turned to a different kind of enterprise: plugging methane leaks utilizing taxpayer cash.

Diversified stands to reap the advantages of $1.5 billion that was tucked into the Inflation Discount Act to deal with leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gasoline. Moreover, the bipartisan infrastructure regulation included $4.7 billion to completely cap the boreholes of ageing oil and gasoline wells.

Diversified additionally pays Puccio to foyer on the state degree, in response to West Virginia ethics filings.

The corporate’s chief government, Rusty Hutson Jr., was named vice chair of the board of governors for Fairmont State College in 2020. The school can be a Puccio shopper, public data present. Puccio’s son Jay Puccio, an insurance coverage salesman, additionally sits on the board. One other son, Larry Puccio II, was employed by FirstEnergy, a longtime shopper of Puccio.

A model of this story first ran in E&E Information’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the vitality transition, pure sources, local weather change and extra in POLITICO’s E&E Information.

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