November 13, 2023 - Before he numbered his days in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., spent the morning chairing a hearing on abandoned coal mine land reclamation economic revitalization programs.
The powerful Senate and Energy Natural Resources chairman listened as witnesses, including a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection unit director, reported how legislation championed by Manchin had created opportunities for environmental restoration and economic growth.
The Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act of 2021 allotted about $11.3 billion to eligible states to help communities address environmental hazards and pollution caused by past coal mining and support jobs through reclamation projects.
DEP Division of Land Restoration Director Rob Rice testified that West Virginia’s abandoned mine lands program has awarded $53 million in design and oversight contracts for 127 projects over the past two years that will use over $200 million in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding.
“Whether it’s acid mine drainage impacting rivers and streams; subsidence and landslides threatening homes, businesses and infrastructure; or dangerous mine openings, AML [abandoned mine land] sites pose serious risk to the health and safety of communities across the country, particularly in Appalachia,” Manchin noted.
But the senator’s fossil fuel-friendly approach to energy and environmental policy has sparked criticism that he has helped perpetuate cycles of economic reliance on and environmental scarring from resource extraction.
“Joe Manchin has no legacy of environmental protection that I’m aware of,” Vernon Haltom, executive director of Raleigh County-based anti-surface mining nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch, said in an email.
Manchin’s support as a swing voter in an evenly divided Senate last year secured passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark law designed to spur a massive influx of public and private climate and renewable energy investments in West Virginia and nationwide.
But critics say Manchin’s key support for the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is outweighed by an embrace of fossil fuels that they say set a costly ceiling on climate action with Democrats controlling the levers of power in the previous congressional session.
“Joe Manchin’s legacy on climate and energy policy is one of taking what could have been game-changing and paradigm-shifting and making it, at best, a good start,” Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action Board President Eric Engle said in an email.
Not as clean as may have beenManchin has been an ardent opponent of tighter regulations on coal industry emissions and other policies aimed at fast-tracking U.S. decarbonization and slowing economically and ecologically devastating effects of climate change.
West Virginia is one of just three states whose carbon intensity of its economies increased from 2010, the year Manchin joined the Senate, to 2021, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of federal Energy Information Administration data.
The 21.4% by which West Virginia’s coal energy-related carbon dioxide emissions decreased from 2010 to 2021 lagged well behind the national average decline of 31.8%.
West Virginia has clung increasingly to coal for its electricity over that stretch. Coal comprised 91% of West Virginia’s electricity generation in 2021, far more than any other state.
Coinciding with West Virginia’s high use of coal have been escalating energy bills. State ratepayers faced a 90% increase in average residential electricity retail price from 2005 to 2020. Only Michigan had a greater increase by percentage.
Opposition from Manchin helped doom in 2021 what had been the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda — the Clean Electricity Performance Program.
The program would have authorized grants for electricity providers that increase clean electricity use by 4% or more annually from 2023 through 2030, and penalties for those that don’t.
Proponents predicted the direct-pay incentive would keep ratepayers from bearing the cost of the energy transition.
If distributed evenly across customers, $150 billion in Clean Electricity Performance Program investments could have reduced Americans’ electricity bills by 5% compared to the same power sector transformation without federal grants, according to Evergreen Action, a pro-clean energy group.
Manchin predicted the scuttled Build Back Better Act that originally included the program would deploy clean energy at a rate faster than technology or markets would allow, resulting in what he said would be “catastrophic consequences.”
A report released in September by the independent economics consulting firm Analysis Group found a clean electricity payment program would result in an increase of 7.7 million jobs, a $907 billion economic boost and $154 billion more in increased tax revenues for federal, state and local governments by 2031.
With Manchin as senator, West Virginia and the rest of the United States have taken divergent paths in key data categories.
West Virginia’s population fell an estimated 4.2% from 2010 to 2022 while the nation’s population increased 7.9%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
While the nation’s median household income rose 16% in 2022 dollars, taking into account the measured rate of inflation from 2010 to 2022, it fell 6% in West Virginia, according to Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data.
Manchin drew the ire of antipoverty advocates by balking at extending an expanded child tax credit that lifted thousands of West Virginian children out of poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The expanded credit was part of the American Rescue Plan, a COVID stimulus package.
Manchin cited budgetary concerns with the move, even though independent analyses found the spending package containing a one-year extension of the credits would be mostly or fully paid for.
In September, the Census Bureau released a finding that the national child poverty rate, using a measure that accounts for government programs designed to aid low-income families, more than doubled from 5.2% in 2021 to 12.4% in 2022.
West Virginia’s socioeconomic struggles are evident in EJScreen, a federal mapping and screening tool that combines environmental and demographic indicators.
Much of West Virginia contends with air toxics cancer or respiratory hazards, or close proximity to hazardous waste or facilities that use extremely hazardous substances, according to EJScreen.
The Manchin-backed Inflation Reduction Act is designed to benefit low-income communities or areas historically sited near coal mine or plant closures, like those throughout West Virginia, by offering tax credits for clean electricity projects that locate in them.
The law also is designed to encourage electrification of home appliances and energy-efficient retrofits of homes.
West Virginia is slated to receive $88.2 million through the legislation for two home energy rebate programs with those goals.
Betting on hub, pipeline hopesWhile Manchin has provided pivotal support for decarbonization programs, he has also backed projects with economic and environmental warning signs, betting on their futures as job and energy creators.
Manchin was a driving force behind the creation of a regional hydrogen hub program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. A proposed West Virginia-centered hydrogen production network was selected by the Department of Energy to receive up to $925 million in funding.
The proposal hinges on carbon capture technology unproven at commercial scale and use of “blue” hydrogen, a fossil fuel-enabled approach in which hydrogen is derived mainly from breaking methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Carbon capture, use and sequestration is an umbrella term for technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to create products or stores it permanently underground.
The potential for a regional carbon dioxide pipeline buildout has raised concern over potential risks of induced seismicity and carbon dioxide leakage during storage.
Studies have concluded that blue hydrogen is far from clean, in part because of leaked methane, and suggest that blue hydrogen could be a liability, instead of an asset, in the fight against climate change.
Plug Power Inc., a Latham, New York-based hydrogen fuel cell application provider and Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) project development partner, questioned its “ability to continue as a going concern” in a federal Securities and Exchange Commission filing Thursday. Plug Power said its existing cash and available securities won’t be enough to fund its operations through the next 12 months.
ARCH2 has said its hydrogen production network will create 3,000 permanent and 18,000 construction jobs. The Department of Energy has estimated that it will take eight to 12.5 years for projects to come to fruition, with projects subject to agency “go/no-go” decisions and negotiations over community benefits plans at each phase.
But opponents say the hydrogen hub program risks locking in potentially expanded fossil fuel infrastructure, with the gas industry standing to benefit, and that the economic question marks looming over hydrogen and carbon capture technology are too large to merit such significant taxpayer-supported investment.
Pittsburgh gas producer EQT Corp. is one of the main partners behind ARCH2, which Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd has welcomed.
“GO-WV and its members sincerely thank Senator Joe Manchin for his years of dedicated service representing the great people of West Virginia, as well as his unwavering advocacy for the energy and natural gas and oil resources that are the economic backbone of our state,” Burd said in an email.
Gas and oil industry political action committees and employees, most of them out-of-state executives, had given over $250,000 to Manchin’s campaign committee from the start of 2022 up to the enactment of a law with a provision designed to force completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in June.
That law, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, was passed primarily to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a national default. But it also prohibits legal challenges of any federal or state agency authorization for construction and initial operation of the 303.5-mile pipeline. The law compelled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June to issue all permits needed to finish construction of the pipeline within three weeks.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture behind the pipeline, has said its initial customers have signed multidecade agreements for service on the project, and that the project will improve reliability and affordability for domestic consumers for decades to come.
“While [Manchin] parades around his ‘victory’ in fast tracking MVP construction, his real climate legacy is the mortal threat to Appalachians and the planet posed by the unnecessary, reckless, fracked gas project,” Denali Nalam-alapu, communications director at Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, a coalition of West Virginia and Virginia groups opposing the pipeline, said in an email.
‘He has served our state well’Manchin has opposed rules proposed in the Obama and Biden administrations aimed at curbing power plant carbon dioxide emissions. In May, Manchin pledged to oppose all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nominees until the Biden administration stopped what he called government overreach.
Manchin reported making roughly $3 million from 2017 through 2022 from stock he owns in Enersystems Inc., the coal brokerage he founded in 1988, in Senate financial disclosures. Manchin has denied that his vested coal interests have influenced his policymaking.
West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton called Manchin “a personal friend and a great political leader with more common sense than most” in an email Friday.
“He has served our state well and has left his mark on coal and energy programs,” Hamilton said.
Manchin left the door open to a potential third-party or independent presidential run in announcing that he was not seeking reelection to the Senate.
Manchin, 76, said he would be “traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.”
Renewable energy advocates hope Manchin finishes his Senate run strong on the environment.
Linda Frame, legislative chairperson of the West Virginia Environmental Council, said in an email her group hopes Manchin “unshackles from the coal and natural gas industry ... and truly advocates for the betterment of this nation, perhaps mitigating the harm he has done here by working toward climate solutions instead of selling us to a future of pollution and backward policies.”
Chelsea Barnes, government affairs and strategy director at environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, noted her group is asking Manchin to work with federal pipeline regulators to ensure the Mountain Valley Pipeline doesn’t install degraded pipes.
Appalachian Voices also is asking Manchin to work with federal mine reclamation regulators to hold coal companies accountable for their reclamation responsibilities, Barnes said.
But Burd and Hamilton looked beyond Manchin’s time in the Senate.
“[W]e look forward to continuing our collaboration with him in any future capacity for the betterment of West Virginia and our vital energy sector,” Burd said.
“His centrist views and conservative values will enable him to succeed on any level,” Hamilton said. “We wish him well!”