Lone Democratic Senator Blocks Biden’s Climate Agenda as COP26 Nears

With the U.N. Climate Change Conference set to begin in less than two weeks, a vital piece of the Biden administration’s climate agenda is in danger of dying in the U.S. Senate, at the hands of a member of the president’s own party.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who represents the state of West Virginia, has said he will not support the most important clean energy provisions in the administration’s “Build Back Better” package of infrastructure and social spending programs. Because the Democrats have only 50 seats in the 100-member Senate, and expect zero votes from Republicans, Manchin can kill the entire bill by withholding his vote.

Last week, he indicated he would do just that if the Clean Energy Performance Program, considered the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s climate plan, were part of the bill. The CEPP would reward electricity producers that begin converting to renewable energy at a rate of 4% per year or greater, and penalize those that do not.

The economy of Manchin’s home state is disproportionately reliant on fossil fuel, so oil and gas firms, coal mining operations and natural gas pipeline companies all wield significant political muscle. The coal industry in West Virginia would be particularly hurt by the CEPP, because 90% of the electricity produced in the state comes from coal-fired power plants.

This week, Manchin also rejected a different effort to meet the administration’s emission reduction goals, this time by imposing a tax on carbon. To the frustration of many in his party, Manchin has not offered any alternatives that would come close to the kind of impact on emissions that the Biden administration is seeking.

Bold promises

On his first day as president, Biden announced that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris Agreement, a climate accord that his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, had exited. In April, Biden announced that his goal was to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change to between 50% and 52% of 2005 levels.

Experts say the 4% annual increase in electricity generated by renewables required by the CEPP is essential to meeting the emissions reduction goal.

The bold promise was meant to demonstrate renewed U.S. leadership in the global effort to fight climate change, and was made with an eye on next month’s U.N. climate summit, also known as COP26. Recently, the administration announced it would be sending 13 members of Biden’s Cabinet to the summit, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, demonstrating a very high level of commitment spanning the breadth of the federal government.

Empty-handed at COP 26?

But Manchin’s unwillingness to budge on the climate issue leaves the president in danger of traveling to Glasgow with little, other than good intentions, to show for his first 10 months in office.

Other Democrats in Congress have warned of the danger of failing to take significant action. Former U.S. Senator John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, told The Associated Press it would compound the reputational damage the U.S. suffered when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, told The Guardian newspaper it would make the U.S. delegation look “ridiculous,” adding, “It would be bad for U.S. leadership, bad for the talks and disastrous for the climate. Just disastrous.”

Manchin’s claims

Manchin has claimed the energy industry is making the change to renewables on its own, and that it makes little sense to spend taxpayer dollars on something that is already happening.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Manchin’s assessment of the industry’s progress is accurate.

“We can get there if we … allow for the various carbon capture technologies to be developed, commercialized and then utilized within the coal and natural gas sectors,” Hamilton said. “Our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint as well, you know. It’s not like anyone’s opposing that.”

But climate activists sharply dispute Manchin’s characterization of the industry’s progress on reducing emissions.

Manchin’s claims are “demonstrably false,” said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy think tank in San Francisco.

“Over the last five years, from 2016 to 2020, the U.S. added about 1.1% to its clean energy share annually,” he said. “In 2020, alone, we hit a record of 2.3%, so barely more than half of a 4% increase.”

Manchin’s personal interests

Critics of the West Virginia senator also point out that Manchin has a considerable personal financial interest in the coal industry. He owns between $1 million and $5 million in shares of Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage that he founded and that is now run by his son. The company has paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade.

When asked about this apparent conflict of interest, Manchin has for years protested that his assets are held in a blind trust. However, his Senate financial disclosure forms expressly name Enersystems.

Manchin also receives major campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry at large, taking in well over $250,000 in the 2022 election cycle so far.

A dying industry

Adding to the frustration of Manchin’s fellow Democrats is that the coal mining industry that he is so intent on protecting has been shriveling for decades, as demand for coal across the United States decreases.

In 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the coal industry in West Virginia, including “all employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair shop or yard work at mining operations, including office workers,” employed 11,418 people, or about 1.4% of the state’s workforce.

The numbers were down slightly in 2020 because of the pandemic and will likely rise when 2021 figures are released, but the longer-term trend is quite clear. Since the early 1950s, when more than 125,000 men mined coal with pickaxes and shovels in West Virginia, improved technology began steadily reducing the number of people needed to run the state’s coal mines.

By the 1990s, there were fewer than 40,000 people employed by the industry in the state, and the numbers have kept falling.

Add to that the decline in demand, as power companies switched to cleaner fuels, including natural gas, and the picture of a dying industry becomes complete. After peaking at 158 million tons in 2008, West Virginia’s coal production has fallen sharply, to well under 100 million tons for the past several years.

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