'These issues are hard': Coal country's centrist senator may hold up Biden's climate change agenda

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., hasn't changed his mind on the filibuster, which he supports.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., hasn't changed his mind on the filibuster, which he supports.
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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's far-reaching plan to expand the social safety net and address climate change takes direct aim at the fossil fuel industry through a series of proposals to wean the country off oil, gas and coal that contribute to climate change.

It has an obstacle: Sen. Joe Manchin.

The West Virginia Democrat from coal country, who opposes efforts to quickly phase out fossil fuels as Biden's plan calls for, has already come out against a key part of the bill that would reward utilities that speed up their transition to clean energy – and penalize them if they don't.

"The transition is happening," Manchin told CNN recently, citing the growth over the past 20 years of renewable energy as a share of the electric grid. "Now they're wanting to pay companies to do what they're already doing. Makes no sense to me at all."

In the evenly divided Senate, Manchin's words matter because he holds enormous sway over the Democratic caucus and, therefore, the Biden agenda. His opposition to an aggressive phase-out of fossil fuels is causing heartburn for environmental advocates – who hope climate provisions remain intact as Biden's bill is pared down to appease moderates like Manchin.

Since January, Manchin – a moderate Democrat in the Senate – has been instrumental in killing a plan to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 (he wanted $11) and limiting wealthier households from receiving payments in the president's COVID-19 relief bill. He has been a deciding factor on Biden Cabinet appointments, with his thumbs up (Interior Secretary Deb Haaland) or thumbs down (budget director nominee Neera Tanden).

Recently, he and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema got Biden to scale back the price tag of his $3.5 trillion budget bill funding social safety net programs by more than $1 trillion after they raised concerns about the size and scope.

The budget bill's environmental pieces include, among other things, a penalty for electricity suppliers that do not transition fast enough to clean energy; a fee on methane; a major expansion of electric vehicle charging stations; and help for nonprofits and local governments to bring cleaner energy to underserved communities.

So environmentalists worry when Manchin touts the benefits of natural gas, an abundant resource in his home state (sixth in the nation in natural gas production). Although It's cleaner than coal or oil, natural gas usage would face significant reduction under the Biden plan because it emits greenhouse gasses that warm the planet.

"Natural gas has helped manage prices and reliability," Manchin said last week during a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. "We have vast reserves of this commodity right in our backyard that can continue to support our energy independence."

More: Democrat dust-up over infrastructure underscores Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema's hold on Biden's agenda

Manchin's history of supporting the fossil fuels industry, a significant economic driver in his state, worries at least one key senator who is demanding the dramatic action to combat global warming that the science community says is necessary to protecting the planet.

“Does Sen. Manchin not believe what the scientists are telling us, that we face an existential threat regarding climate change and that it is absolutely imperative, that we move boldly to cut carbon emissions?" Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., told reporters Wednesday. "Does Sen. Manchin not believe that our children and grandchildren are entitled to live in a country and in a world that is healthy and is habitable?”

"I'm really hopeful that Sen. Manchin will see the interests of West Virginia's people in fighting climate change. They're as much harmed by it as anyone," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "I'm hoping he'll come around."

Will Manchin dig in on Biden's climate policies?

Manchin's ability to make Biden come significantly down on the size of his budget bill has environmental activists concerned the West Virginia senator could compel the president to scale back on the climate provisions as well. The House Energy and Commerce Committee adopted those provisions last month as part of a bill that would enact Biden's plan.

"I think you would have to be living in a bubble to think that there aren't going to be some changes from what the House Committee approved," said Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters told USA TODAY. "That said, I think Sen. Manchin understands that one in three people in the United States have felt the impacts of climate change this summer and that includes folks in his state. The flooding that they've experienced this spring has been severe and has really opened a lot of eyes."

Biden and Democratic leaders have been meeting with Manchin over the past few weeks to cut a deal on the bill. But compromise has been difficult especially because progressives in Congress contend that $3.5 trillion is not enough to address the nation's social, economic and climate needs. But Manchin is not willing to go along with a phase-out of fossil fuels, doubling down instead on the importance of an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that assumes a mix of renewable and fossil fuel sources.

"It makes no sense to take tools out of the toolbox because we know that none of these energy resources are 100% immune to weather disruptions, whether that be freezing wind turbines, disruptions to our natural gas production and delivery systems, or frozen coal stockpiles – all of which we saw happen last winter," Manchin said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week. "We have to maintain a diverse and reliable energy mix with the technologies necessary to reduce our emissions.”

Manchin's clout derives from both his chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and his standing as the most conservative member of a 50-50 Senate that Democrats only control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote.

If Manchin digs his heels in on climate, some fellow Democrats say they have no plans to back down either.

Environmental activists rally on Capitol Hill for climate change policies on Sept. 24, 2021.
Environmental activists rally on Capitol Hill for climate change policies on Sept. 24, 2021.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., one of the leading climate voices in the Senate, said he feels "pretty good" that the final bill will go far to address global warming.

"There are a considerable number of senators who feel very strongly abut this issue, enough to offset any Manchin effect," he said. "Everyone knows what he's said about it but at the end of the day what matters is overall total emissions effect of the package that we put together."

Sanders aside, most Democrats in Congress have been careful not to criticize Manchin openly during a delicate phase of negotiations over Biden's climate proposals. Instead, they say the West Virginia senator can be convinced to support certain measures provided they help his Mountain State constituents.

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"What we have to do is make sure that states like West Virginia, and fossil fuel-dependent states benefit the most from the clean technology investments," said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and leading progressive. "What I've said is we should sit down with Senator Manchin and others, and see what he needs for his State of West Virginia in terms of clean tech jobs. And if the bill has more clean tech jobs going to a state like West Virginia than California because of their historical dependency on fossil fields. I'm fine with that."

Some environmental advocates are optimistic as well that Manchin can be swayed, in part because of the mounting toll that a warming planet has exacted in all corners of America, including West Virginia. Most of the state has warmed one-half to one degree Fahrenheit in the last century and heavy rainstorms are becoming more frequent, according to the EPA.

"Manchin needs to realize that the fossil fuel industry is about to keel over and we refuse to let it drag the rest of us down with it," said John Noël, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA. "Congress cannot fall for big oil’s false choice between a healthy economy and a healthy planet."

President Joe Biden announced "climate change is here" while touring areas devastated by the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Ida.
President Joe Biden announced "climate change is here" while touring areas devastated by the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Ida.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Manchin was always going to be a key player on the climate debate because he chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. So far, Schatz said he's optimistic Manchin can be convinced to support many of the climate-related provisions.

"These issues are hard," the senator from Hawaii said. "You know Joe comes from a different state than I do but there are good-faith negotiations happening.”

What climate provisions are in the $3.5T budget bill?

The bill as written addresses climate in several ways.

The centerpiece is the creation of a $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would require electricity suppliers that do not transition fast enough to clean energy (4% increase per year) to pay a penalty. That's the program Manchin was referring as unnecessary during his CNN interview.

More: Joe Manchin suddenly seems to influence everything Washington does. The West Virginia senator says he wants to make Congress ‘work again’

The goal of the program is to power at least 80% of the nation's electric grid through clean energy sources by 2030, or about double the current share. But industry advocates argue that penalizing utilities for not moving fast enough will leave less money for them to make the transition climate activists want. And Manchin points out that the share of renewable energy sources in the power grid has risen from 9.5% two decades ago to about 20% in 2020 without the pressure of a federal program.

"We have proven that. And we will continue to transition," he told CNN while also warning that accelerating the volume of wind and solar sources "could be very, very vulnerable to the reliability" of the power grid.

Biden's proposal also includes billions to expand electric vehicle charging stations, help manufacturers transition to clean energy sources and assist states in setting up clean energy transmission networks. It also aims to "de-carbonize" federal buildings and fleets, and provide clean energy grants for nonprofit organizations and local governments in historically underserved communities.

The bill also includes a proposed fee on methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, targeted at the oil and gas industry.

More: Joe Manchin suddenly seems to influence everything Washington does. The West Virginia senator says he wants to make Congress ‘work again’

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the climate provisions Sept. 15 but the overall bill enacting Biden's plan remains stalled in the House awaiting a deal from Manchin, Sinema and the White House.

“The climate crisis is worsening by the day, and we must confront it with historic investments in clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction to help meet our aggressive climate goals," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J. said in a statement provided Wednesday to USA TODAY.

Energy, fossil fuels in particular, is crucial to West Virginia

Manchin hails from a state known for its energy production, which is rooted in fossil fuels.

West Virginia ranked fifth among the states in total production in 2018, accounting for 5% of the nation's energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2019, it was the second-largest coal producer in the nation (after Wyoming) and coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of the state's electricity net generation.

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Manchin's fellow West Virginia senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, said the climate provisions in Biden's proposal would put coal miners in her state out of work. And she assailed the plan as far too aggressive, unrealistic and costly considering 60% of the nation's energy grid still relies on fossil fuels to operate.

"This rushed reconciliation package doesn’t allow time for any sort of transition," she said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "Wind and solar energies still have serious gaps –they’re growing, yes – but they still have serious gaps in reliability and stability. When the wind stops blowing and the sun isn’t shining, our country still relies heavily on coal and natural gas and nuclear."

Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist from Bracewell who represents utility companies, said Manchin's positions have always been grounded in what he views as the best interests of his home state.

"At the end of the day, he doesn't want an energy policy that excludes sources of baseload power production, like natural gas or coal," Segal said. "He wants a policy that improves our energy portfolio. And that might mean including more renewables, but it might also mean finding pathways for continued use of fossil fuels."

Contributing: Savannah Behrmann

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Manchin's coal advocacy's impact on Joe Biden's budget bill