The Democrats' new deal could help save planet Earth – and struggling West Virginia

Donald Trump won West Virginia by nearly 42 points in 2016 after promising to stop President Barack Obama’s alleged “war on coal” and bring back the declining coal industry after “a lot of years of horrible abuse.”

To the shock of almost no one, Trump was unable turn back time, reverse climate change or manufacture demand. The real shock is that because of a deal coalescing in Congress, West Virginia – its identity tied so tightly and sometimes so tragically to coal mining – now could be on the verge of a post-coal energy future.

“I really do think this is a watershed. I see this as a chance for us to stay an energy state,” said Coalfield Development founder and CEO Brandon Dennison, whose group in Huntington, West Virginia, creates businesses in green sectors and uses them to put people to work.

The reason for his optimism, Dennison told me, is the Democratic energy, tax and health care agreement that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate energy committee chair Joe Manchin suddenly announced last week. If it passes both chambers, and that’s always an if until it happens, it could be a turning point not just for West Virginia but also for America and the world.

Now is the time for a climate change deal

The deal would make what Senate Democrats call “the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history,” an assessment shared by other analysts. Roughly $370 billion would be invested in “energy security and climate change” over 10 years. The climate provisions could produce by 2030 a 40% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions, a major contributor to climate change, and spur global action. Some of the money would support fossil fuels during the transition to clean energy.


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There are many reasons this is happening now:

►It starts with Manchin, a former governor who’s known and trusted at home after holding public office for most of the past 40 years. He has walked a narrow line – so far successfully – as “the Last Democrat in Trump Country,” as GQ called him in 2018.

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin gives a state certificate to the family of Josh Napper, one of 25 coal miners killed in an explosion, at a candlelight vigil in Cabin Creek, W.Va., in 2010.
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin gives a state certificate to the family of Josh Napper, one of 25 coal miners killed in an explosion, at a candlelight vigil in Cabin Creek, W.Va., in 2010.

►The dire need, underscored recently by President Joe Biden’s awkward fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for more oil production due to rising post-pandemic demand and boycotts of Russia's oil and gas since it invaded Ukraine.

►Urgency to stem climate change, increasingly apparent in heat waves, wildfires, droughts, rising tides and extreme weather. In fact, the day after the Schumer-Manchin announcement, massive floods destroyed communities and left dozens dead or missing in Kentucky.

►Political deadlines closing in: Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year and the last day for Democrats to use a special budget procedure requiring only 51 votes, which they can theoretically muster. And Nov. 8, when midterm elections could end Democratic control of Congress and/or Manchin’s pivotal role in a 50-50 Senate.

Manchin’s oversized influence on the new deal can be seen in expanded oil and gas drilling over the next decade; a requirement that coal companies pay into a trust fund for miners with black lung disease; and Schumer’s written commitment to pass a permitting reform bill to speed up energy projects, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia (a nonrevenue item that can’t be part of the tax-and-spending package).

Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 5, 2016.
Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 5, 2016.

At the same time, Manchin has helped open up a clean energy future for his own state and others like it – an economy that attracts companies interested in solar, nuclear and hydrogen power; in manufacturing products like battery energy storage systems; and in turning mountaintop removal sites into utility scale solar power plants.

"It was just too raw” to contemplate a future without coal six years ago, Dennison told me. Since Trump tried and failed to revive the industry, he said, “conditions are more ripe for new sectors to take hold” and for his group to help people get the training and support they need to join the green workforce.

Generations of exploitation could end

To me this is personal. I started my career in West Virginia, where corporate exploitation is a dominant theme through state history.

One of my first assignments was writing about the fifth anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Flood – a coal waste dam collapse that unleashed 132 million gallons of water and sludge, wiped out 17 communities, killed 125 people and left thousands homeless in 1972. The coal companies in charge had ignored or suppressed many warnings and recommendations. Investigators later said that the dam was not built properly, and that the Pittston Coal Co. had shown “flagrant disregard” for safety.

SCOTUS Clean Air Act decision: I grew up near a coal power plant. This EPA decision will worsen public health injustices.

I also reported on floods in southwestern West Virginia and the people displaced by them. Why did they keep rebuilding on flood plains? Because corporations owned most of the other land. Bob Wise, the former West Virginia governor, congressman and state senator, was a lawyer and tax activist when I met him, a founder of West Virginians for Fair and Equitable Assessment of Taxes. The group was trying to force higher property tax assessments on historically undervalued coal, oil and natural gas reserves below the surface.

It was an old problem. The West Virginia tax commission wrote in 1902 that coal “is being mined from and transported beyond the State, and continuously subtracted from the State’s property values without paying to the State one cent of tribute.” The authors warned that the corporations would leave behind “a comparatively worthless shell” once they exhausted all the state’s coal, oil and gas.

West Virginia has been exploited, trampled and endangered for two centuries. It is No. 1 in U.S. opioid overdoses and No. 50 in a WalletHub study of most and least educated states. But new investment and new hope might finally change the trajectory of a state that deserves much better after generations of callous snatch-and-grab capitalism.

More from Jill Lawrence:

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Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Manchin, climate hero? New deal helps coal, gas and maybe Earth