Joe Manchin Must Stand Up for West Virginia

The senator’s prioritization of coal profit over climate and employment is hurting his own state


President Joe Biden and the United States Congress have been heavily criticized for not pursuing climate action aggressively enough. One of the primary reasons many voted for Biden was because of his promises to take immediate action on pressing climate issues. However, the climate legislation that emerged from Biden’s first year in office was steadily diminished following pressure from Republicans and some Democratic senators, particularly Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Most recently, Manchin opposed a $150 billion clean energy program which would have incentivized utility companies to use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, accelerating the crucial transition away from coal and natural gas. Manchin’s unique power lies in the fact that he represents West Virginia, a state long famous for its coal mines, as well as the fact that he chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where he can outweigh more eco-friendly opinions from members like John Hickenlooper and Bernie Sanders. 

In response to Biden’s proposals, Manchin has argued that the legislation would be a waste of money as private companies are already moving in that direction. He ultimately succeeded in removing this vital element of Biden’s Build Back Better budget bill. Democrats could still try to pass this bill separately, but its most viable time has passed.

Blocking a pivot to renewable energy in favor of clinging to coal does little to serve West Virginians anyway.

This sequence is part of a cycle: Democrats, in desperate attempts to gain a vote they need, repeatedly water down the initial legislation in order to make it more palatable to Republicans. This allows the influence of the coal industry, through the vehicle of Manchin, to seep into the very Congressional legislation which is supposed to regulate it. As the main obstacle to bills which would impact the whole country, Manchin is undermining an already tenuous attempt to represent the 77% of Americans who favor a transition away from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy.

It is tempting to view this as typical, petty American political squabbling. However, climate legislation has global implications — the US is the second largest culprit of global warming, and the US military alone burns the most fossil fuels of any institution in the world. The US needs to be leading the fight against climate change in every way we can, but if politicians like Joe Manchin can’t set aside their own interests and get on board, then we will continue to cause devastating environmental impacts for the rest of the world.

Even if we assume that opposing divestment from fossil fuels really would benefit the people of West Virginia, it might strike an onlooker as dubious that one man is allowed to choose one American state over the habitability of the world forever. Admittedly, a senator is only tasked with representing their state, not the globe. However, blocking a pivot to renewable energy in favor of clinging to coal does little to serve West Virginians anyway.

Although coal has remained part of the state’s brand, mining is no longer the backbone of West Virginia: only 11,000 people are still employed by the coal industry, including miners and all the surrounding jobs. Transportation, education and government sectors employ significantly more people, all of which could be bolstered through clean energy initiatives. Furthermore, the state is home to 40,000 people who are unemployed and who could stand to benefit from a revitalization of West Virginia’s economy through climate legislation — energy storage, electric vehicles and renewable energy like wind and solar power are all sources of job creation

West Virginia itself has begun to reckon with the repercussions of global warming in the form of record-breaking floods that devastate roads, power stations, schools and homes. These floods are worsened by years of coal mining, which has removed the vegetation that historically has prevented large-scale flooding. 

Flooding threatens the already inadequate infrastructure, resulting in a state quickly barreling towards inoperability with no genuine mouthpiece at the one place that could provide solutions. These traumatizing experiences have deeply impacted residents of West Virginia, but many still refuse to blame fossil fuels or even climate change at all.

He is currently receiving more money from the fossil fuel industry than any other senator.

Manchin’s stance on coal is so oriented toward the interests of remote coal lobbyists that he continues lying to West Virginians by endorsing the idea that the coal industry does not contribute to global warming and, by extension, to the floods which endanger his constituents. In theory, he was given this governmental position because he was deemed suitable by West Virginians to represent their interests. In reality, he is using his power to prioritize his own profit. Manchin personally made $500,000 within the last year alone from coal production stock he owns and stands to benefit further if he remains politically uncommitted enough to win future elections. He is currently receiving more money from the fossil fuel industry than any other senator. 

Manchin has situated himself at the behest of coal lobbyists, whose only goal is to steer him into policies which will prop up the dying coal industry and squeeze just one more dollar out of it. The political and financial interests of Manchin and his supporting act inform the narrative that the people of West Virginia will always depend on coal to survive — a narrative bolstered by the American tendency to harken back to some mythical golden age and refuse to imagine a new future.

Manchin’s Republican counterpart, West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, does not have to deal with Manchin’s fear of losing support by making progressive stances as a centrist Democrat in a mostly Republican state (although there has been recent debate about whether Manchin constitutes a Democrat at all, encouraged by statements from Manchin himself). Capito states her position quite clearly: she is completely opposed to divesting from fossil fuels on the grounds that it “would be absolutely devastating” for West Virginia.

West Virginia, the nation and the world deserve a sincere argument from Manchin about the climate bills grounded in evidence and constituent interests.

Manchin must be explicit about his views and the corporate lobbyists who fuel them, regardless of potential political consequences for him, because it is his job. West Virginia, the nation and the world deserve a sincere argument from Manchin about the climate bills grounded in evidence and constituent interests, rather than feeble evasion of questions aboard his yacht.

The White House has outlined a plan which could serve as a foundation for crafting a more local plan to meet the urgent needs of West Virginia. Turning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy would create replacement jobs which could address unemployment, rather than insisting on an industry which will not be a fount of new jobs any time soon. The plan itself centers economic growth and American competitiveness in global markets, specifically mentioning funds for renewable energy research and carbon capture projects. 

Mine land reclamation could provide assistance to communities which are struggling with failing infrastructure. In addition, minerals retrieved from coal waste streams are necessary in the manufacture of electric vehicles, a process that would both create jobs and serve an environmental purpose. These projects and others like them could counteract any fallout from a divestment from the coal industry, while simultaneously taking action on other social and economic issues in the state.

Manchin is betraying his state and his country by continuing to bend to the will of coal lobbyists in order to preserve his own power. Either he must go, or he must start standing up for the well-being of West Virginians and Americans at large. The tools are there — the only question that remains is whether Joe Manchin will be able to summon the courage to do his job before it’s too late.