By Michael Bastasch
April 13, 2019 - Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin closed out a Capitol Hill hearing by chastising fellow Democrats for backing climate change policies that make energy more expensive for poor families that can least afford it.
“We’re still producing 91 percent of our power from coal-fired units,” Manchin said at a Thursday Senate hearing on energy innovation and climate change. “Nothing has changed except the price has gone up for some of the most challenged incomes of people anywhere.”
Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chat before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee nomination hearing for former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt to be Interior secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 28, 2019.
Photo by Yuri Gripas, Reuters
“They get beat-up unmercifully, and all we have done is drive the price of coal-fired plants to the point to try and make our renewables look more competitive,” said Manchin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “It’s just a tremendous hardship.”
Being the number two coal-producing state, West Virginia was hit hard by the industry’s recent downturn. A combination of low-priced natural gas, government regulations and green energy subsidies turned the economic tide against coal.
Manchin joined Republicans in criticizing many of the energy policies put forward by former President Barack Obama, whose main goal was tackling global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Obama administration regulations on power plants and mines put him at odds with coal miners, especially in the Appalachian states where anti-coal policies hit the hardest. These primarily rural areas lost roughly 36,000 coal jobs during Obama’s second term.
“We were so attractive to industries and manufacturing because we were in the four-cent category per kilowatt hour,” Manchin said. “We’re up to six and eight and ten cents now in the commercial arena. We used to be at six and eight cents in residential — we’re up to the national average. That’s what you can’t sell.”
State electricity prices have risen steadily over the past two decades, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. A big jump in prices came in 2015, the same year a major Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation on coal-fired power plant emissions went into effect.
As coal-fired electricity becomes more expensive, demand for the fuel was displaced by natural gas. State policies mandating wind and solar power, along with federal subsidies, also forced coal plants and the mines that supported them to close.
Obama-era regulations, like the Clean Power Plan, were set to raise electricity prices even more in states that relied heavily on coal power. The Trump administration repealed the Clean Power Plan along with other regulations seen as part of the so-called “war on coal.”
“You want to know why we lose the rural areas — makes no sense to them,” Manchin said. “Why are you punishing the people that have done the heavy lifting?”
West Virginia’s poverty rate increased between 2012 and 2017 as coal miners and power plants closed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state’s poverty rate increased 17 percent to 19 percent in that time.