Analysis: What's driving Manchin's resistance to climate change legislation

20October 2021

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With his all-powerful 50th vote as leverage, Manchin’s reported opposition to Biden’s plan for a $150 billion plan to pay power generators to further cut reliance on fossil fuels, kills the plan.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’s committed violence on legislation to address climate change.
Back in 2010, when he won as a Democrat in a red state in a very red year, Manchin did it by running an ad in which he literally fired a bullet into climate change legislation. That legislation, the last major attempt to enact climate change legislation, did fail.
Eleven years later, the effects of the climate crisis are all the more apparent and frightening but Manchin is still out to get climate change legislation he thinks will hurt his state. It could also hurt him. His family’s wealth is directly tied to coal.
Years later, he’s a man specifically made for this moment. The Democrat representing a red state, he’s got complete power over legislation. The chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee only amplifies his importance on energy and climate issues.
The current proposal he killed would have paid utilities for moving more quickly away from fossil fuels. Manchin opposes moving more quickly away from fossil fuels since he says the US is already moving away from fossil fuels. He’s right. But it’s not happening fast enough.
Time is running out. Experts are convinced the window is closing for the US and other countries to address climate change, which is already wreaking havoc on the weather and supercharging natural disasters, before the effects are catastrophic.
One new study published in Nature suggests that to in order to avoid catastrophic consequences, most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels should remain in the ground.
I’ve been trying to see this from Manchin’s perspective. He’s like a politician from another time — when there were Democrats representing red states.
He’s sticking up for the energy source of another time — when coal was king.
He doesn’t see the need for the government to hasten the demise of coal since coal’s demise is here.
“The transition’s already happening,” Manchin told CNN, although he would not comment on a story about coal and West Virginia. “So I’m not going to sit back and let anyone accelerate whatever the market’s changes are doing.”
West Virginians are feeling the effects of climate change and the energy markets.
Coal is part of West Virginia’s entire identity. It’s beneath the ground in all but two West Virginia counties. It was discovered in the state in the 1700s, part of a great legacy of energy production. It’s still the No. 2 coal producer in the US, behind Wyoming.
But the US has transitioned away from coal and so too has West Virginia, although more slowly.
Most US coal comes from five states, according to the US Energy Information Agency:
  • Wyoming — 40.8%
  • West Virginia — 12.6%
  • Pennsylvania — 6.8%
  • Illinois — 5.9%
  • North Dakota — 4.9%
Even in most states where coal is produced, its production has been dropping, including in West Virginia.
The number of people employed in the coal industry in Appalachia, which includes West Virginia, has dropped by half from about 60,000 in 2011 to less than 30,000 today.
Coal used to be the largest energy source in the US. Now it accounts for less than 20% of US electricity generation.
That’s a smaller portion of the US electricity market than either nuclear or renewable energy.
As coal has dwindled, natural gas has exploded. Back in 2008, nearly twice as much US electricity was generated by coal compared to natural gas. In 2020, natural gas generated more than twice the electricity of coal.
West Virginia is also a major producer of natural gas. It sits on the Marcellus Shale, which has massive amounts of potential natural gas and is in the top five natural gas producing states, along with Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Coal production is actually up this year. That said, coal is experiencing a likely short-term production bump — the first since 2014 — since the price of natural gas has exploded as part of a worldwide energy crunch.
Where does your electricity come from? I spent some interesting time today looking at where electricity comes from in different states. You can search by zip code. My region, which includes Virginia and the Carolinas, was (and I’m rounding here):
  • 37% gas
  • 16% coal
  • 39% nuclear
  • 3% solar
  • 3% biomass
  • 2% hydro
  • smaller percentages of oil and wind
For comparison, West Virginia gets 89% of its electricity from coal.
House of cards. Some Democrats are now questioning that still-large infrastructure bill if it lacks that climate provision Manchin has killed.
Others are casting about for an alternative to help the US meet its goal of cutting carbon-producing energy production in half by 2030.
What are the alternatives? A tax on carbon, more direct than the one Democrats tried to enact in 2010, could be the next order of business.
It has the benefit of being the most direct way to cut carbon emissions, but the problem is no lawmaker likes to raise taxes. It’d be a difficult sell for any lawmaker, in particular Manchin.
West Virginia voters elected him to put a bullet in it.

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