Manchin has long history of fighting for fossil fuels
Coal industry sees items in $2T Biden agenda as a threat
WASHINGTON — During a radio interview this week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., cited a litany of issues that drove him to oppose President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better bill, from Democrats’ refusal to attach work requirements to social benefits to their failure to raise tax rates on the rich.
But left almost unsaid was the issue that has always propelled his political career as a Democratic maverick: climate change.
The version of the bill that passed the House last month devoted $555 billion to shifting the nation to renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, and away from fossil fuels like West Virginia coal.
Manchin, who defied gale-force political headwinds in 2010 by running for the Senate on his opposition to President Barack Obama’s climate change legislation, killed a provision in Build Back Better that would have imposed stiff penalties on electric utilities that continued to burn coal and natural gas.
But even with the stick dropped from the House’s bill, West Virginia’s coal interests were working hard to kill off the measure’s carrot, a package of tax credits to make clean energy more financially competitive, and, by extension, struggling coal even less so.
Their lobbyists talked frequently to Manchin.
With every Republican opposing the bill in the evenly divided Senate, Democratic leaders could not afford to lose a single vote, and Manchin has said he had concerns about energy issues from the start.
“I said, this is absolutely a very far-reaching piece of legislation which changes so many categories in American culture and American society, revamping the entire tax code and revamping the entire energy policies for our country — and the social platforms that we use to support people,” he told a West Virginia broadcaster.
West Virginia coal and gas, and policies designed to stop their burning, have always had a special place in Manchin’s politics.
A Manchin family-owned business has made a small fortune selling waste coal from abandoned mines to a heavily polluting power plant in the state.
The blind trust in which Manchin’s interests lie held $500,000 to $1 million last year, according to his most recent disclosure form. The company, Enersystems, valued at $1 million to $5 million, delivered the senator $492,000 in dividends, interest and business income in 2020, the May disclosure states.
He received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator in the current election cycle.
Democrats thought that the substantial weakening of the climate provisions in the House bill had gotten Manchin within shouting distance of yes.
“We were close,” Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said of her last conversation with Manchin, which she said occurred early last week.
Gregory Wetstone, president and chief executive of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a nonprofit group that supports green power, added, “We had good conversations directly with him and with his staff.”
“All of the prior conversations had been along the lines that he did not want to penalize fossil fuel but was fine incentivizing clean power,” Wetstone said. “We had not seen indications of pushback from Manchin or elsewhere from the clean energy provisions.”
The bill, as passed by the House, includes about $320 billion in tax incentives for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear power. Electric vehicle customers would receive up to $12,500 in tax credits. Also included are $6 billion to make buildings more efficient and burn less fuel, $6 billion to replace gas-powered furnaces and appliances with electric versions, and billions more for research and development of new technologies.
Behind the scenes, coal interests were hard at work making the case against the clean energy provisions, and specifically the approximately $320 billion in tax incentives for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear power.
Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he had conveyed to Manchin that the clean energy tax credits would be a death knell for the state’s coal industry.
Hamilton said the coal industry still saw the tax incentives as a threat to the state.
But Biden appeared determined Tuesday to return to the negotiating table with Manchin.
“Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done,” Biden said.