Coal’s Main Man(chin) In Washington

On the heels of three short-sighted pieces of legislation in the US Senate aiming to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPAs) authority over global warming pollution (from Senators Barrasso, Rockefeller and Inhofe), last Thursday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) delivered his first attempt to end the EPA’s general oversight capacity with the “EPA Fair Play Act.”

In spite of popular support for the EPA (77% feel the agency should be allowed to “do its job”), Manchin’s first piece of legislation has significant implications for undermining health, safety and environmental protections and bolsters Newt Gingrich’s recent calls to dismantle the EPA.

Is Manchin’s latest attack just a knee-jerk reaction over the Spruce Mine issue? After all, in response to the EPA’s veto of Spruce Mine No.1 in January, Manchin described his bill saying:
“I believe it is fundamentally wrong for any bureaucratic agency, including the EPA, to regulate what has not been legislated, to have absolute power to change the rules at the end of the game and to revoke a permit, as the EPA did in southern West Virginia’s Spruce Mine…”
Or will it be one of many pieces of polluter friendly legislation to come? It seems that protecting the coal industry and other vested fossil fuel interests will be top priorities for the new Senator, whether by his own legislation, or from the support he will provide them as a new member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Even in the twilight of his career, former coal favourite Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) (whom Manchin replaced) was calling out big coal for the disruptive role it plays in West Virginia’s politics. Given that dirty energy interests, and notably the coal industry, have been substantial contributors to Manchin’s campaigns, he is unlikely to be responsive to his constituents’ concerns over coal’s risks to health, safety and the environment, nor to hold dirty energy interests to account.

According to FollowTheMoney, as Governor Joe Manchin was no stranger to dirty money, having collected $285,613 from mining and another $90,041 from oil and gas between 2000 and 2008. After the EPA released new guidelines for issuing Clean Water Act permits for coal mines in April last year, Manchin filed a lawsuit to overturn the new guidelines. As well, he also filed a lawsuit suing the EPA over its global warming regulations.

According to OpenSecrets, for his 2010 Senatorial run, Manchin received some $410,021 from dirty energy sources ($174,871 from mining, $166,200 from electric utilities and another $68,950 from oil and gas).

During his campaign to succeed Senator Byrd, Manchin took “dead aim” at a copy of a climate bill in an advertisement that, thankfully, he now says he would not have made in the wake of the Arizona shootings.

But Manchin will clearly keep mounting his defense of fossil fuels, and specifically coal, and of course completely overlooking the health impacts in coal counties.  These industry “externalities” are staggering, including mercury poisoning putting some 300,000 fetuses at risk of neurological damage each year, according to the Sierra Club. Additionally, the coal industry was responsible for 2,237 megatons of global warming pollution in 2008, 38% of US emissions. The cost to humanity from manmade global warming is estimated between $60 and $600 billion.

In his short time as a Senator, Manchin’s defense of the coal industry has led him to bend the truth as well. In his first address to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, during a hearing on energy and oil markets (at approximately the 106 minute mark), Manchin criticized the EPA and (mis)characterized the coal industry as a “victim,” and particularly vis-à-vis energy subsidies said:

“The only energy source — which is the greatest source that we have so far as we’re dependent on — is coal. It doesn’t get a penny of subsidies. But it’s been villainized by this administration…”
That’s quite a claim about an industry that has collected government subsidies since 1932! In 2009, coal cost West Virginia some $97.5 million, according to an analysis by Downstream Strategies. And in 2008, as Governor, Manchin himself provided Appalachian Fuel $200 million in subsidies for a liquid coal plant. Moreover, Taxpayers for Common Sense released their Green Scissors report last July, identifying $19 billion in subsidies to the industry.

Suffice it to say, as Governor, Manchin’s ardent defense of coal and other fossil fuel industries left little doubt about his industry bias. While running for Senator, his fossil fuel financiers strengthened their relationship with him, and now the EPA Fair Play Act is the tip of the iceberg.