Did Joe Manchin block climate action to benefit his financial interests? | Joe Manchin

Nancy Hilsbos, a former coal miner living in the West Virginia county Sen. Joe Manchin calls home, barely noticed the nondescript office building she passed almost daily.

The property, atop a rise on the road out of the small town of Fairmont, bears a large sign: “Manchin Professional Building.” Nameplates advertise the offices of accountants, financial advisers and insurers. But there is no mention of the most profitable and influential company registered at the address – the Democratic senator’s own company, Enersystems.

It was recently revealed that Manchin had quietly earned millions of dollars from Enersystems over the past three decades as the sole supplier of substandard coal to a highly polluting power plant near Fairmont. This was news for Hilsbos and for almost everyone in the town.

“What surprised me was that we didn’t know. One of the most shocking things is that I’ve walked past this place thousands of times over the past 30 years and had no idea that was where their headquarters was because there was no sign,” Hilsbos said.

“I wonder why he’s not more proud of what he’s done. Why doesn’t it have a big sign saying Enersystems? »

In 2020, Manchin earned almost half a million dollars from the company and $5.6 million in the previous decade.

But Hilsbos, who worked underground for 13 years and was also a labor activist, is less bothered by the senator protecting the source of his wealth than by what may have been hidden.

For years, Manchin has justified voting against fossil fuel burning restrictions and other measures to address the climate crisis on the grounds that they were bad for West Virginia with its economy and culture steeped in the climate. coal mining. Last year, he used his vote in a suspended US Senate to block President Biden’s $3.5 billion economic plan in part because he said he was “very, very disturbed” that his climate provisions kill the coal industry.

But following revelations that Manchin pulled what most West Virginians would consider a small fortune from the Grant Town power plant, Hilsbos wondered if US climate policy, and by extension the response world to the crisis, had been held hostage by the financial interests of the senator.

“If he used it to slow down responsible solving of climate change issues, then it’s an international liability,” she said. “What’s wrong is he’s throwing so much weight against the public interest when he has so much to gain from the continued existence of this type of facility.”

Hilsbos is not alone in his concern.

Christopher Regan, a former vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party who worked as Manchin’s aide, recalled a time when the senator portrayed prominent Republican state officials as “involved in self-service as opposed to public service”, a the Regan line was later promoted.

“This thing with the coal plant turns the situation around. What is he doing? Is this for West Virginia? Or is it only for his own narrow pecuniary interest? ” he said.

Regan said it’s a question that could haunt Manchin as he plans to run for re-election in two years.


MAnchin founded Enersystems in 1988 with his brother Roch, around the time the state was considering an application to build a power plant in Grant Town, a small former mining community less than a 20-minute drive north of Fairmont. .

Manchin, then a state senator, helped pave the way for construction of the power plant while brokering a deal to become the sole supplier of its fuel. Not just any fuel, but waste coal known as “bitumen waste”, more commonly known as “gob”, which is even more polluting than regular coal.

When the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised concerns that the Grant Town plant was too close to other coal burning facilities, increasing pollution levels in the area , Manchin stepped in and the objections disappeared. Later, as governor of his state, Manchin used his political influence to gain approval for an increase in the billed tariff for electricity charged by the plant, which increased the bills of ordinary residents of the West Virginia. The New York Times reported that, in a highly unusual arrangement, the senator received a cut off those bills.

People protest Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) as they block off the Grant Town Coal Waste Power Plant in Grant Town, West Virginia on April 9. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

After his election to the US Senate in 2010, Manchin served on the Energy Committee and later became its chairman, from where he blocked environmental regulations that would have hit the Grant Town plant and other facilities in gob burning. Manchin also obstructed Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better plan, which potentially threatened the powerhouse with tougher federal climate regulations. The senator defended the move as necessary amid the Covid crisis, economic uncertainty and fuel supplies threatened by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

But the suspicion remains that he was acting, at least in part, in his own interests. Hilsbos said the first time she heard about the source of Manchin’s wealth was from recent revelations in The interception and then the New York Times. They provoked protests outside the power station in April to demand its closure due to the additional pollution caused by the gob.

Although Hilsbos said she sympathized with protesters’ concerns, she also understood the fears of residents of Grant Town, which was once home to the world’s largest underground mine by amount of coal produced. The mine closed in the mid-1980s, eliminating hundreds of jobs. Today, the power plant, which has about 50 workers, is the only major private employer in a town without a gas station or convenience store.

“Some neighbors came forward and said, I’ve always hated this place. But when we went to the town council meeting and tried to explain to them why people were coming from all over to protest here, they said, ‘ We don’t want you here, don’t come,’” Hilsbos said.

“Many of the people involved in the city council have themselves worked in the mines. They think that’s what we can do to keep our homeland, not have to move, have this little plant for as long as we can.

While few in neighboring Fairmont knew where Enersystems was located, Manchin also maintained a highly visible campaign office across from the county courthouse in the heart of town, between Bill’s Bail Bonds and a yoga studio. From there, he built strong loyalty among West Virginia voters as a conservative Democrat willing to stand up to his party’s liberal wing and champion coal.

Regan said the senator spent years cultivating an image of himself as his own man, above party politics.

“He did a good job. He had his famous shotgun commercial, filming the climate bill during the Obama administration, which he used to distance himself from the Democratic Party nationally. But the effectiveness of this strategy could run out. The scale of change within the state is too great for it to work anymore,” he said.

In 2010, Democrats had a firm grip on the West Virginia legislature. Today, the Republicans are in charge and they hold the governorship.

All of West Virginia’s congressional seats fell to Republicans, leaving Manchin as the last Democrat to hold statewide office. Manchin won his Senate seat in 2012 with nearly 61% of the vote, beating the Republican nominee by more than 24 points. Six years later, his margin of victory was just three points and he won less than half the vote after openly criticizing Donald Trump in a state where the then-president was hugely popular and remains.

Still, Greg Thomas, a prominent West Virginia Republican agent and Manchin opponent, doesn’t think the coal plant revelations will hurt the senator along with most voters.

“If you’re a West Virginia politician and you’re not under some kind of investigation, you’re not trying hard enough to help your people,” he said.
“No one here cares about environmentalists protesting Joe Manchin’s personal financial involvement. It’s gotten to the point where it’s like, who cares if he does? We assume they are all corrupt.

Thomas said Manchin’s political stances against fellow Democrats have invigorated support.

“His popularity in West Virginia is coming back after dropping due to his fights with Trump. Pushing Biden back helped. His stance on energy issues has been important, he said.

Manchin’s approval rate among West Virginia voters jumped to 57% from just 40% at the start of last year — and are even higher among Republicans.

Regan disagreed, saying suspicions about his actions on the power plant ‘threaten’ the senator because they stem from disenchantment among the state’s dwindling swath of Democratic voters over his failure to support the program. of Biden. Manchin’s vote against enshrining abortion rights in federal law as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v Wade will further alienate some Democratic voters in the state.

Regan said the last election left Manchin with a margin of victory of less than 20,000 votes – a narrow cushion to absorb the loss of angry Democrats who won’t turn out to vote for him. He said the revelations about the Grant Town power station were likely to stir up discontent within that part of the electorate.

“These Democrats that he’s alienated by being against Build Back Better and the Child Tax Credit, and these very, very popular provisions among Democrats, can cost him dearly in terms of people not voting or people who simply won’t vote for him anymore. It can cost him what margin he has left and leave him in a bad spot in 2024.”

Then there is Trump. West Virginia voted for him in both presidential elections by the largest margin of any state except Wyoming.

“I think anyone in 2024 who is not ready to say Trump won the election – will no longer be an acceptable candidate,” he said. “He can’t get into the Republican camp and he will have alienated too many Democrats to win.”

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