“The existential threat to humanity is climate change.” — President Joe Biden, Oct. 21, 2021
We’re asking the wrong question about Joe Manchin III, the Democratic senator from West Virginia.
Getting the nation’s electricity grid off Earth-warming fossil fuel feedstock was the critical centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s ambitious effort to cope with climate change in his Build Back Better bill.
And rightly so. A rapid switchover to electricity generated by clean fuel is imperative to avoid the worst chaos and cruelty of climate change hell.
But Manchin — former governor of the second-biggest coal producing state in the nation — has succeeded in forcing his own president to drop this essential planet-saving measure from the bill.
“What does Joe Manchin want?” cry Manchin’s anguished fellow Democrats.
People, this is not the right question to ask about Joe Manchin. The question to ask is, why is someone who founded, and profits from, a coal brokerage serving as chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee?
In a tidier moral universe, this smelly situation would be called what it is, a personal conflict of interest, worthy, at the very least, of recusing — or divesting — oneself.
Manchin is headed for infamy in the history books. He’ll be remembered as the person who abandoned his nation to the ravages of climate change — ostensibly to save his state, population 1.8 million.
Well-funded by fossil fuel interests, Manchin is blocking the most meaningful climate legislation ever attempted in this country. The lone Democratic office holder still standing in Trump-loving West Virginia, Manchin holds veto power over Biden’s legislative agenda.
Biden’s bill earmarked $150 billion to quickly be spent assisting utilities that switch from fossil fuels to producing electricity from wind, solar and nuclear energy.
Utilities that did not switch would have been penalized. The goal was to get 80% of the nation’s electricity from cleaner sources by 2030, double what it is now.
Is Manchin’s refusal to bestir himself to address the climate crisis simply explained by the half a million bucks he gets annually from his brokerage? Is he incapable of seeing the big picture? Did he miss the memo? Or is it that he just doesn’t care?
Manchin’s been offering standard-issue platitudes for his intransigence: he’s protecting his state’s economy, consumers, jobs and taxpayers. But his excuses ring hollow. He’s really protecting coal producers.
Just 3% of West Virginia’s work force (13,000 people) labors in the coal industry; 2,000 of them in coal plants. To keep running, West Virginia’s coal plants need $448 million worth of upgrades, mandated by the federal government. That would keep them producing coal until 2040 instead of shutting down in 2028.
Coal generates 89% of West Virginia’s electricity. Over the last 13 years, the price of electricity in West Virginia has risen 122%, from an average of $62 per month to $138, according to a CNN report.
“It does feel very wrong when your electric bill is more than your mortgage,” West Virginia resident Felisha Chase mused to CNN. Come January, her bill increases five-fold and she falls in arrears. Chase lives in an old house in one of the poorest, sickest states in the union.
Yet, hogtied to coal, there’s worse to come for West Virginians such as Chase, who relies on tape to seal up her drafty home. Next year she’ll pay 3.3% more for electricity. Manchin blames this rate increase on upgrades ordered by the feds for those polluting coal plants.
While the cost of coal-fired electricity keeps soaring, solar and wind-generated electricity keeps dropping — solar by 80% in the last decade, wind by 70%.
As for Manchin’s claims that, absent tax hikes, we’ll bankrupt ourselves if we borrow to pay for Biden’s programs, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman puts that fallacy to rest.
Borrowing to pay for $1.75 trillion worth of Biden’s programs would add $30 billion to annual interest rates, Krugman writes — “0.15% of gross domestic product, which is trivial.”
Ironically, West Virginia is more exposed to catastrophic flooding from increasingly heavy, fossil fuel-driven rainfall than any other state, according to First Street Foundation: 61% of the state’s power stations are at flooding risk, more than twice the average in the rest of the nation. At 46%, West Virginia also leads in the number of roads and police stations under flood threat. And it’s tied for first place with Louisiana in having the most schools and commercial properties at risk of flooding.
Flooded West Virginia homeowners frequently also have to endure contamination from sewage system failure.
Manchin’s state ranks seventh nationally in child poverty. Yet he fears what he dismissively calls “an entitlement society.”
That is, societies that invest in pre-kindergarten programs, child tax credit payments, affordable child care for working parents, affordable housing, parental leave, free community college education.
Enfranchising West Virginia’s disenfranchised to help lift them out of poverty isn’t in Manchin’s lexicon. But it is in Biden’s Build Back Better bill.
Originally that bill, which combines climate and social safety net measures, was to cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years. Manchin insisted it be trimmed to $1.5 trillion. Now Biden’s aiming for one that will cost a mere $1.9 billion.
With Democratic dunderheads like Manchin, who needs Republicans?
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.