He has been a one-person barrier against climate action, serving as a US Democrat while manipulating climate legislation alongside most Republicans. Joe Manchin has used his position as a Senator from West Virginia to parlay power and prestige to suit his own career and financial ambitions. It’s clear that Manchin’s coal conflict of interest is not only bad for US politics and energy and climate policy, it’s dangerous for the planet.
This week the New York Times conducted an investigation into the “unusual relationship” of Manchin and an “especially dirty power plant” in West Virginia, “showing just how entwined they are.”
As the tie-breaking vote in an evenly split Senate, Manchin has stymied legislation that would enable the US to more efficiently transition to wind, solar, and other clean energy sources and away from coal, oil, and gas, the burning of which is dangerously heating the planet.
With the war in Ukraine and resulting calls to boycott Russian gas, Manchin has joined Republicans to press for more US gas and oil production to fill the gap on the world market.
“Gob” Smack in the Middle of the Climate Crisis
Joe Manchin’s ties to the only power plant in a dying Appalachian town started in 1987. As a West Virginia career state legislator, he was approached by two developers who wanted to build a power plant in Grant Town, just outside Manchin’s district.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was concerned the Grant Town plant would be too close to an existing coal-burning plant, resulting in excessive levels of sulfur dioxide, a threat to human health and plant life.
With help from his grandfather to clear bureaucratic hurdles, Manchin joined in the power plant business as the sole Grant Town supplier of a type of low-grade coal known as “gob.” Gob is an acronym for “garbage of bituminous.” This detritus is mixed with rock and clay, making it harder and less efficient to burn. As a general rule, gob is discarded by mining companies but can be used to produce electricity — it’s junk that mining companies dumped beside their operations throughout parts of Appalachia before federal cleanup standards were enacted in 1977.
This waste coal has piled up on the ground outside coal mines in West Virginia in barren heaps often reaching several stories high.
The technology and the type of fuel used to generate electricity affect the efficiency of power plants. Because gob is a less efficient power source than regular coal, Manchin’s gob business has harmed West Virginians economically, costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in excess electricity fees.
Regardless of the cost to his local citizens, Manchin’s business, Enersystems, flourished. Since 2002 — as far back as available data goes — his company has had just one customer: the Grant Town power plant.
Manchin’s business perks from Grant Town don’t end with gob. He contracted for dividends from electricity generated by the plant — those electric bills are paid by his constituents.
His gob supplies to the Grant Town power plant burden ratepayers in one of the poorest states in the nation.
The Grant Town plant arrangement has been the source of lifelong wealth for Manchin. To protect his investments and influence, Manchin has wielded his political influence to benefit the Grant Town plant.
- urged a state official to approve its air pollution permit
- pushed fellow lawmakers to support a tax credit that helped the plant
- worked behind the scenes to facilitate a rate increase that drove up revenue for the plant — and electricity costs for West Virginians
- defended his personal business ties to the Grant Town plant, telling the Charleston Gazette in 1996, “I did it to keep West Virginia people working”
- sued the EPA over new mining permit standards for mountaintop removal coal mining when he was West Virginia governor
Yet coal of all grades has reached its peak. Sure, it was the single biggest source of power through the late 2000s, but it has experienced a significant decline since then. “We have invested billions of dollars into clean energy technologies so we can continue to lead the world in reducing emissions through innovation,” Manchin said in December, 2021. “But to do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow will have catastrophic consequences.”
That’s a coal conflict of interest statement if there ever was one.
Will Manchin do even more to soften coal’s inevitable demise?
The Trajectory of Manchin’s Coal Conflict of Interest
Manchin has made a career of blurring the line between public business and private gain.
When he was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 2000, he gave control of Enersystems to his son, Joseph. Manchin won the 2010 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by incumbent Democrat Robert Byrd’s death with 54% of the vote.
As the years went on, several energy companies have held ownership stakes in the Grant Town power plant, and those major corporations with interests far beyond West Virginia have sought to influence the Senate.
In a television ad for his 2010 Senate campaign, Manchin used Democratic-backed climate-change legislation for target practice, loading a rifle and firing a single bullet into a copy of the cap-and-trade bill that would basically penalize utilities for burning coal.
In January 2015, Manchin was among 9 Democrats who voted for a Republican-sponsored bill to speed up approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. President Obama vetoed the measure.
Between 2011 and 2020 Manchin was paid $5,211,154 in dividend income from Enersystems. He describes Enersystems in disclosure forms as a “contract services and material provider for utility plants.” In 2020 alone, it paid Mr. Manchin $491,949, according to his filings, almost 3 times his salary as a US senator.
In Manchin’s financial disclosure for 2020, he reported that his non-public shares of Enersystems were worth between $1 million and $5 million.
Let’s not forget the how Joe Manchin made his ultimate decision about rejecting even a watered-down version of the Build Back Better Act.
- West Virginia’s coal lobby worked diligently to kill off the measure.
- He received more money from oil, coal, and gas industries than any other US Senator in the current election cycle.
- The Koch network joined in and pushed against the bill with their massive media might.
- The US Chamber of Commerce questioned if job creation would really be a lasting benefit.
Has Manchin sabotaged “momentum for a different kind of country,” as Bill McKibben argues? Can enough members of the US Senate stand up to fossil capitalism and demand that Manchin stand up to ethics charges?
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