Coal country is still reeling from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision to back a sweeping climate and energy package that will accelerate the nation’s transition away from coal.
In the Mountain State, the once-burgeoning coal industry says it feels betrayed, displaced coal workers are celebrating the bill’s black lung benefits and Republicans seeking Manchin’s seat in 2024 are licking their chops.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes several Appalachia-centric measures, including subsidies to build renewable energy projects on former coal fields and the permanent extension of a tax on coal companies that funds benefits for miners suffering from black lung disease.
Advocates who fought hard for the black lung fund extension — they warned Manchin that the benefits were at risk when the excise tax expired last year — hailed its inclusion as a breakthrough victory for workers who don’t typically wield influence in Washington.
“We were surprised. We thought it’d be a four-year or 10-year [extension],” said Gary Hairston, a former West Virginia coal miner of 27 years who now leads the National Black Lung Association. “So, when we got it permanently, we might not need to worry about it no more.”
The coal industry, on the other hand, attacked Manchin for making the tax permanent and pushing policies to subsidize alternative energy sources. Leaders of Appalachian coal groups, including the West Virginia Coal Association, wrote in a recent letter that the excise tax will cost them tens of millions of dollars and hurt their ability to compete and keep energy costs stable.
“This legislation is so egregious, it leaves those of us that call Senator Manchin a friend, shocked and disheartened,” they wrote.
Backlash from the coal industry, conservative groups and GOP lawmakers has opened up an opportunity for political challengers ahead of Manchin’s upcoming reelection battle.
Republican Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia is running television ads accusing the Democratic senator of crossing the state’s coal industry, an apparent signal that he plans to challenge him in 2024.
“Alex Mooney won’t let Joe Manchin and Joe Biden destroy our coal industry and devastate West Virginia,” the ad tells viewers.
Cecil Roberts, a longtime Manchin ally who leads the United Mine Workers of America, the nation’s largest coal miners’ union, called those critiques “absolute bull” in a recent statement.
He noted that the bill includes tax credits for carbon capture that could extend the life of coal plants and authorizes $4 billion in tax credits exclusively for companies that create new clean energy jobs in coal communities.
“I cannot understand how any politician who actually cares about working West Virginians and the quality of their lives can trash this bill,” Roberts said. “They should be thanking Senator Manchin, not attacking him.”
In a response to the West Virginia Coal Association, Manchin noted that the excise tax has consistently been extended at the same rate for nearly four decades and said that coal companies can take advantage of a $5 billion fund in the climate bill to boost their efficiency.
“The big pushback I’m getting from the coal operators right now is having to pay the black lung fund, and that’s a shame,” Manchin told reporters on a recent conference call.
Manchin added that despite his best efforts to boost coal, its prevalence has declined under both Democratic and Republican presidents, indicating that his state needs to take advantage of emerging energy technologies to keep up.
Hundreds of coal-fired power plants have shut down over the last decade amid the emergence of cleaner and more efficient energy sources, causing pain for Appalachia’s coal mining companies.
At its peak, the West Virginia coal industry employed more than 125,000 employees, a figure that dropped to less than 12,000 in addition to 36,000 independent contractors, according to estimates from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
While they’ve been slow to adopt clean energy policies, West Virginia legislators in recent years passed bills to boost solar projects despite opposition from the coal industry.
The Nature Conservancy and West Virginia Chamber of Commerce released a survey last year finding that most West Virginians believe that the state should reduce its reliance on coal and shift to renewable energy sources, a significant shift in public opinion.
“This is a traditional energy state, but folks in West Virginia are also interested in looking at what the new energy economy can bring to the state in terms of jobs, and economic development and economic diversification,” said Thomas Minney, West Virginia state director at the Nature Conservancy.
As part of his climate deal, Manchin also secured an agreement from Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that Democrats will pass legislation to expedite approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which spans hundreds of miles in West Virginia and Virginia.
Manchin says the natural gas pipeline, which has drawn opposition from local environmental and property rights advocates, would create 2,500 jobs in his home state and help make up for coal’s decline.
Still, it’s not clear whether deep-red West Virginia will embrace Manchin’s climate deal, given that his popularity soared around the time that he told Democrats he couldn’t support the $2 trillion Build Back Better Act.
From the first quarter of 2021 to 2022, Manchin’s approval rating shot up 17 points to 57%, the biggest increase among all senators over that period, according to Morning Consult. Nearly 7 in 10 West Virginia Republicans expressed support for the Democratic senator as he railed against his own party’s spending package.