What’s Worse for the Climate: Joe Manchin or No Manchin?

Joe Manchin III, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, has been one of the Senate’s most consistent and strident defenders of fossil fuels — except for one crucial vote.

That contradiction was on full display last week when Manchin announced he would not seek re-election. His decision will have far-reaching consequences, making it more difficult for Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. Manchin might even upend next year’s presidential race by running as an independent.

But whatever happens in those future races, Manchin has already had an outsize role in shaping U.S. climate policy, in both directions.

Manchin consistently blocked legislation that would have accelerated the transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other clean energy. As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, he was a reliable ally for the coal and natural gas industries that are crucial to his home state of West Virginia, and his own financial interests.

Since his earliest days as a state senator, Manchin has owned a business that sells low-grade coal, and as a lawmaker he has aided a West Virginia power plant that is his company’s sole customer, as my colleagues Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate reported.

In 2021, Manchin became the crucial swing vote in the evenly divided chamber. For months, he blocked the Biden Administration’s landmark climate change law, which included penalties for power companies that did not reduce their coal use.

And then, a surprise: At the eleventh hour, Manchin signed on to pass the bill, renamed as the Inflation Reduction Act, the most potent climate legislation in the country’s history.

“His vote on the I.R.A. unleashed historic climate spending that will reshape the American economy,” said Abigail Dillen, the president of Earthjustice, an environmental law practice. “But the compromises he exacted have enshrined the role of fossil fuels.”

During his 2010 Senate campaign, Manchin ran an ad in which he put a bullet through a copy of a proposed bill that would have implemented a cap-and-trade system for fossil fuel emissions. Manchin was elected. The bill cleared the House but never saw a Senate vote.

Manchin has blocked the appointments of several senior officials who would have prioritized climate action. He declined to support President Biden’s nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin for a top position on the Federal Reserve, largely because she favored making companies include the risks of climate change in their financial projections. Manchin has also blocked appointments to top jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency.

He was the largest Senate recipient of donations from oil and gas companies, according to OpenSecrets. An Exxon lobbyist singled out Manchin as a particularly valuable contact.

Manchin’s coal business gave him a net worth of between $4.5 million to $12.8 million in 2020, according to Senate disclosures, and, apparently, a taste for driving Maseratis.

When Biden took office, he immediately tried to pass the Build Back Better Act, which would have deployed more than half a trillion dollars toward promoting renewable energy. After months of waffling, Manchin declared he would not support the bill.

And then, a plot twist: Manchin and Senator Chuck Schumer announced a surprise deal that cleared the way for the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which has kick-started the country’s clean energy economy with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax subsidies.

Manchin’s support didn’t come without a catch or three. In exchange for his vote, the legislation requires the federal government to auction off more public lands and waters for oil drilling, and expands tax credits for carbon capture technology that could allow coal and gas-burning power plants to keep operating.

He ensured that West Virginia would receive nearly $1 billion in funding to develop a new hydrogen hub, one that uses more polluting sources of energy. He also secured a commitment from Biden to complete a contentious natural gas pipeline.

“To the extent that the U.S. has an all-of-the-above energy policy that enshrines fossil fuels, that’s the price that Joe Manchin exacted,” Dillen said.

When the I.R.A. deal was sealed, one expert on West Virginia predicted of Manchin: “I think he’s going to say, ‘I used my strategic position to bring back benefits for West Virginia.’ And he’ll probably do pretty well in the next election.”

Instead, not long after the Inflation Reduction Act passed, Manchin began railing against the law that he had written. With polls showing his support for the I.R.A. was costing him support with voters, he declared he was waging an “unrelenting fight against the Biden Administration’s efforts to implement the I.R.A. as a radical climate agenda.”

And rather than running on the billions of dollars in spending that the law will bring to West Virginia, Manchin decided not to run.

The leading candidate to succeed Manchin, the popular West Virginia governor, Jim Justice, is expected to be even more hostile to climate legislation.

Justice has been dismissive of wind and solar power and a strident supporter of fossil fuels. He has also invoked his Christian faith to downplay the urgency of the climate crisis: “God will give us time for the smart people of the world to solve the riddle. If there is truly climate change going on, He will give us time.”

Climate advocates may find that the only thing worse than Joe Manchin as the Senate’s swing vote may be not having him there at all.

The latest piece in our series on the energy transition takes a close look at the growing interest in small nuclear plants.

Around the country, nearly a dozen companies are developing reactors that are significantly smaller than conventional nuclear power plants. The hope is that they will be easier to build, that permits can be issued more quickly, and that they’ll be substantially cheaper than earlier nuclear plants, my colleagues Brad Plumer and Ivan Penn report.

The technology could provide steady electricity to the grid to supplement more intermittent wind and solar energy. But the industry faces substantial hurdles.

Beyond persistent concerns about nuclear waste, the industry is struggling to find a profitable path forward. Last week, the first major effort to build small reactors in the United States was abruptly canceled amid soaring costs.

You can read the whole article here.

And, in a related item, my colleague Kenneth Chang takes a look at the growing crop of companies pursuing fusion energy. Fusion power, which creates energy by blasting a tiny bit of hydrogen with lasers to set off a small, controlled thermonuclear explosion, is not yet ready for prime time. But its supporters say that if it can be made reliable and affordable, it could usher in an era of abundant clean energy.

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