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Tina Casey headshot

Despite Joe Manchin, West Virginia is Poised to Move Beyond Coal — Eventually

By Tina Casey
West Virginia

Wheeling, West Virginia

Coal still holds a tight grip on the economy of West Virginia, as reflected in the personal business interests of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, and Governor Jim Justice, too. Nevertheless, policy makers are beginning to nudge the state in a more diverse economic direction. In addition, the still-powerful United Mine Workers of America is beginning to show signs that it is adapting to the green energy economy of the future.

Coal and the West Virginia economy

The coal economy has defined West Virginia throughout modern history, with mixed economic results. On a statewide basis, coal has been West Virginia’s leading export for generations. On a local basis, though, studies have shown that higher levels of poverty, poor health, and economic malaise bedevil communities that depend on coal jobs throughout West Virginia and the Appalachian region.

Senator Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better climate action bill has further underscored West Virginia’s dependence on the coal industry, even as the global economy transitions out of coal. In effect, he has pulled the rug out from under the state’s Department of Economic Development, which is seeking to attract new businesses to West Virginia by promoting the growing diversity of its economy.

To assist in that effort, the agency has established a business recruitment website that highlights “thriving industries."

“West Virginias diverse economy has moved beyond our history of resource extraction to include a robust array of products and services,” the agency explains. They list aerospace, food and agriculture, automotive, building products, defense, metals, manufacturing, information technology, fulfillment warehouses and industries related to lumber and wood products as leading opportunities for businesses seeking a foothold in West Virginia.

Moving beyond coal — or not

The agency also includes “energy production” among the diverse opportunities, and that’s where things get complicated.

On a web page detailing what they mean by “energy production,” the agency notes that West Virginia is still among the biggest producers of fossil energy in the U.S., coming in at second for coal and seventh for natural gas. That is a fact, but it undercuts the messaging for most of the other business areas they seek to attract.

For example, the information technology industry has been shifting toward renewable energy for years. Even the hard-to-decarbonize manufacturing sector is seeking more renewable energy, with General Motors being a leading example.

As global industries accelerate their decarbonization plans, the emphasis on fossil energy production also undercuts West Virginia’s messaging about diversity in its exports.

A recent article by the state’s Department of Commerce suggests that West Virginia is attempting to position itself globally as something more than a coal and gas producing state.

“Plastics, chemicals, automotive, metals, aerospace, and hardwoods combined for more than $3 billion in exports  from West Virginia” the Commerce Department wrote. “Notably, products and parts for the aerospace industry reported export growth at 17.8 percent over the previous year.”

The article also cited Governor Justice, who also emphasized diversity.

To see our exports growing at almost double the national rate is truly incredible,he said. Not only is it great news for our manufacturers who have made a home here in West Virginia and have seen their businesses grow because of it, but it is also wonderful to know that West Virginias products are making an impact all over the world and that everyone gets to see just how good we really are.

If Governor Justice means good at using coal, that’s not going to be a selling point for global industry stakeholders who are looking to clean up their supply chains. As of 2020 coal power plants still accounted for almost 90 percent of electricity generation in West Virginia, leaving little wiggle room to attract new businesses in search of a clean power profile.

More green jobs for West Virginia, if Senator Manchin allows it

Signs of real change in West Virginia’s energy profile are slim, but they are happening. The “Thriving Industries” web page, for example, notes that a 2019 shift in state law will enable large scale solar development in West Virginia for the first time. That includes the potential for locating solar arrays on abandoned coal sites, possibly with an assist from foundations like Michael Bloomberg’s Just Transition Fund.

For real change to come about, though, a change in state leadership may be necessary, and that will require a massive shift in voter sentiment.

One sign of change came about last April, when the iconic United Mine Workers of America labor union expressed support for the Build Back Better bill.

To be clear, UMWA advocated for the creation of new green jobs for unemployed coal workers and their communities, but not necessarily at the expense of existing fossil energy jobs. For example, the union voiced support for new job opportunities in the fields of carbon capture and fossil-sourced hydrogen, though these two areas are not the clean energy solutions endorsed by most climate advocates.

The union shifted its tone dramatically earlier this week, after Senator Manchin appeared on a national television show to announce that he will not cast the deciding vote to pass Build Back Better in the Senate.

Manchin’s announcement provoked a firestorm of criticism, not the least from UMWA.

In a public statement dated December 20, UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts noted that the energy marketplace is changing, and he detailed how Build Back Better supports the union’s previously published Principles for Energy Transition.

Specifically, Roberts noted that Build Back Better includes provisions that support economic diversification in West Virginia, such as re-purposing coal sites for manufacturing and other uses.

Roberts began the statement with a polite nod towards Manchin’s effort in the areas of pension and health care, but that was just the buildup for the real points he wanted to make.

Noting that Build Back Better would provide penalties for employers that deny the right to unionize, Roberts said, “This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers…now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work.”

For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass,” Robert continued. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.”

Roberts was not done yet. He went on to issue a sharp warning on voting rights.

I also want to reiterate our support for the passage of voting rights legislation as soon as possible, and strongly encourage Senator Manchin and every other Senator to be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Anti-democracy legislators and their allies are working every day to roll back the right to vote in America,” he said.

“Failure by the Senate to stand up to that is unacceptable and a dereliction of their duty to the Constitution, Roberts concluded.

It remains to be seen if Roberts’s sentiments are reflected in the next statewide elections. However, if Manchin ever enjoyed a reputation as a friend of the ordinary citizen, he shredded it by failing to endorse Build Back Better.

Image credit: Walter Martin via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey