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Appalachia, West Virginia Would Be Big Winners in Biden Jobs Plan

Poverty-stricken, coal-dependent Appalachia would be the biggest winner from the American Jobs Plan that President Joe Biden is scrambling to push through Congress, with US$65.3 billion to be gained this decade from new solar and wind development. But only if the wider plan can overcome continuing objections of one of the region’s senior legislators, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

“Global coal demand has dropped in the past decade, in part because of the fuel’s role in climate change, and coal production has fallen more than 65% in Appalachia, hurting the economy and creating a need for new opportunities,” the Rocky Mountain Institute writes, summarizing an analysis released last week. 

And “onshore wind and utility-scale solar projects can help fill that need. These projects are typically developed in rural areas with sufficient renewable resource potential and access to land—and both are plentiful in Appalachia. What’s more, ramping up renewables in the region is cost-competitive with the current trajectory of continued dependence on coal,” offering strong opportunities to diversify rural economies and protect public health.

The analysis of local tax revenues, land lease payments, and employee wages during construction and for operations and maintenance showed solar and wind delivering $65.3 billion in returns to Appalachia between 2021 and 2030. The southeastern U.S. received the second-highest economic return, at $57.6 billion, followed by the Midwest at $41.5 billion and Texas at $39 billion.

But while the data gathered by Grid Lab and UC Berkeley assumed a tripling of 2020 wind and solar capacity by 2030 and a 90% carbon-free grid by 2035, “the actual economic development that communities experience will depend on the deployment that the industry achieves in this decisive decade,” RMI writes. “If blocked or disincentivized at local, state, or federal levels of government, renewables growth could fall short.”

And unfortunately, blocking the American Jobs Plan is the role Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, seems determined to play. As far back as September 1, in an op-ed for The Hill, he called on fellow Democrats to “hit the pause button” on the $3.5-trillion package, which also includes funding for health care, immigration reform, child care, and housing. Last week, the New York Times said Manchin planned to rewrite the legislation “in a way that tosses a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry — despite urgent calls from scientists that countries need to quickly pivot away from coal, gas, and oil to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

Manchin should have every reason to support a bill that will provide a badly needed boost to his home state economy. In his Volts newsletter, veteran climate journalist David Roberts says Manchin and his constituents recognize their once-powerful coal-based economy is sunsetting, and the Biden jobs plan provides a brief window of opportunity to deliver federal financial aid for a clean energy transition.

“Manchin knows that an energy transition is necessary, and that it’s under way elsewhere,” Roberts writes. “He doesn’t want his state to be left behind.” Modelling by the University of West Virginia Law School found that a package of investments in building weatherization, clean energy demonstration projects, remediation of mines, wells, and brownfield sites, carbon capture, and more could deliver emission reductions, cleaner air, lower power costs, 3,500 full-time jobs, and more than $20 billion in economic gains.

But in his early September op ed, Manchin was more concerned about the debt and inflation he said could result from the plan, inflaming criticism from the progressive wing of his party. Citing escalating deaths due to extreme weather events like Hurricane Ida, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted that Manchin has ”weekly huddles w/ Exxon & is one of many many senators who give lobbyists their pen to write so-called ‘bi-partisan’ fossil fuel bills.” 

“Fossil fuel corps & dark money is destroying our democracy, country, & planet,” she added.

Manchin’s priorities, by contrast, may be a reflection of the $179,000 in campaign donations he’s already received in this election cycle from the oil and gas industry, the six former staffers now working on a combined 15 lobbying contracts for fossil interests, and the ownership stake he still holds in two coal companies, the Popular Information newsletter suggested last week.

“The companies are currently run by Manchin’s son, Joe Manchin IV,” wrote Popular Information’s Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria. “Senator Manchin’s stock is held in a ‘blind trust’. But Manchin, of course, is aware of his own financial stake and his son’s economic interest in the firms.”

Manchin’s shares have produced more than $4.5 million in dividends since he joined the U.S. Senate in 2010, they add, and “a rapid move away from coal and other fossil fuels would likely have a negative financial impact on Manchin and his family.”

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