Opinion

Joe Manchin is betraying West Virginia

West Virginia's coal industry is doomed. Joe Manchin wants to take the whole state down with it.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has demanded President Biden excise the core of his climate policy. Manchin says he won't vote for the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would pay energy suppliers to move away from carbon power and impose penalties on those that don't.

Manchin's move is a terrible disaster for many reasons. This program is the main mechanism of Biden's climate plan — removing it would mean no significant American action on climate until 2030 or later. Moreover, if Manchin gets his way, the president will go to upcoming climate talks in Scotland with nothing in hand, which would seriously harm the meeting's prospect of success.

But beyond all that, in his capacity as a senator, Manchin's demand is a grotesque betrayal of the people of West Virginia.

It may not look that way on the surface. Manchin is doing this because there are quite a few coal jobs in his state (and because he is personally heavily invested in coal business). But even on that ground, it's a wretched decision. As historian Adam Tooze demonstrates, while coal is still relatively important to the West Virginia economy, it's declining fast, and the state has no rising industry to replace coal as a core social and economic prop. West Virginia's health care industry is growing because so many people are on Medicaid or hooked on opioids, but it can't take coal's place in the state's economy. The jobs Manchin is trying to save are doomed, and he should be focused on bringing in new energy work, not saving what can't be saved.

The demise of the coal industry is long since obvious. In 2007, the American electrical system hit a peak of 2,016 terawatt-hours produced from coal power plants. Since then it has fallen by 62 percent to 774 terawatt-hours in 2020. Even before 2007, West Virginia had shed most of its coal jobs thanks to heavy automation and new techniques like blowing whole mountains up to get at the coal (which causes cataclysmic environmental contamination) instead of digging it out.

Now, the biggest reason for coal's decline is cheap natural gas (up from 897 terawatt-hours in 2007 to 1,617 terawatt-hours in 2020), but the second-biggest reason is cheap renewable power. Utility-scale solar and wind power production have skyrocketed from 35 terawatt-hours in 2007 to 429 terawatt-hours in 2020 — a twelve-fold increase. That's largely because the price of wind power fell by 70 percent over the last decade, while the price of solar fell by 89 percent — but that of coal power barely budged. Those trends are expected to continue, and sooner or later renewables will out-compete both coal and natural gas (though not soon enough to ward off catastrophic climate change without government action).

Neither will exports save coal. Globally, other countries are laying plans to move away from coal as well — partly from price movements but also because it's a dirty, dangerous power source whose pollution kills millions annually. Whether or not Manchin kills his own party's climate plan, West Virginia's coal industry has maybe a decade of life left, at the outside.

West Virginia today is a poor, unhealthy state. That's significantly because nobody in Washington did anything when slanted trade deals destroyed about a third of its manufacturing jobs and energy innovation destroyed most of its coal jobs and, soon, the entire coal industry. As Tooze writes, coal wasn't just a source of jobs; it was a source of meaning — an image of a rugged society where strong men and women did the tough jobs necessary to keep the country on its feet. Without that fund of social cohesion, the state is seeing an epidemic of "deaths of despair" similar to what Russia experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Compounding all these problems, West Virginia is among the states most vulnerable to climate change. Its steep, narrow valleys create ideal conditions for floods in the biblical downpours becoming ever more common, and its generally rugged terrain leaves little room for residents of those valleys to relocate. No "state in the contiguous United States is more exposed to flood damage than West Virginia," reports Christopher Flavelle at The New York Times, citing an analysis from the First Street Foundation. "Sixty-one percent of West Virginia's power stations are at risk, the highest nationwide and more than twice the average. West Virginia also leads in the share of its roads at risk of inundation, at 46 percent," he writes. Beyond being dangerous to mine and deadly to burn, coal contributes to the climate change that produces extreme flooding. No longer a major source of money or meaning, it has become bad for West Virginia in every way.

Digging the West Virginian economy out of its collapsed coal pit would be no small task. But we could imagine a new model based on green energy (West Virginia is one of the windiest states east of the Mississippi), tourism (it is spectacularly beautiful), and perhaps even some cutting-edge manufacturing. Better infrastructure links and high-speed internet; regulations and subsidies to induce domestic economic production; and a stronger national welfare state to increase the incomes of the state's residents would be a good start.

In other words, we're talking about the Biden agenda. Half the point of the Build Back Better plan, for all its flaws, is to kick-start just this kind of forward-looking economy in places like West Virginia so that hopeless and destructive industries like coal are replaced with something rather than nothing.

Naturally, in addition to killing Biden's climate policy, Manchin is also demanding Biden slash the rest of his agenda to the bone. He recently demanded cuts to Biden's child allowance so the poorest parents without jobs — a disproportionate number of whom live in West Virginia — get nothing. Manchin is ruining his state's prospects coming and going.

West Virginia doesn't have to stay an impoverished, backward mess, in thrall to a dying, filthy industry. But if the state can be helped into a better future, Manchin won't have anything to do with it.

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