With less than two weeks to go before the start of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, a vital part of President Biden’s climate agenda risks failing in the US Senate as a result of opposition from a lawmaker in the president’s party.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who represents the state of West Virginia, has said he will not support the most important clean energy provisions in President Biden’s administration package on infrastructure and social spending.
Because Democrats have only 50 seats in the 100-member senate and do not expect any votes from Republicans, Senator Manchini could undermine the entire bill by not voting in favor of it.
Last week, he said he would do just that if the Clean Energy Efficiency Program, abbreviated CEPP, which is seen as the core of President Biden’s climate plan, were part of the bill. The CEPP program would reward electricity producers who start the transition to renewable energy at a rate of 4% per year or more, and penalize those who do not.
The economy of the state represented by Senator Manchin is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, so oil and gas firms, coal mines, and natural gas companies have a major influence on politics.
The CEEP program would severely hurt the coal industry in West Virginia because 90% of the electricity produced in that state comes from coal-fired power plants.
This week, Mr. Manchin also rejected another attempt to meet the administration’s emission reduction goals, this time by imposing a carbon tax. Senator Manchin has not offered any alternative that would approach the type of emissions impact required by President Biden’s administration.
On his first day as president, Mr. Biden announced that the U.S. would return to the Paris Agreement, a climate deal from which his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, had withdrawn.
In April, President Biden announced that his goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change by between 50% and 52% of 2005 levels.
Experts say the 4% annual increase in electricity generated from renewable sources, as required by the CEPP program, is essential to meeting the emission reduction target.
The bold promise was intended to demonstrate new American leadership in global efforts to combat climate change in the wake of next month’s UN climate conference, known briefly as COP26.
Recently, the US administration announced that it would send to a conference in Glasgow, Scotland, 13 members of President Biden’s cabinet, demonstrating a very high level of US engagement.
Empty on COP26?
But Senator Manchin’s unwillingness to change his stance on the climate issue risks President Biden going to Glasgow empty-handed, in addition to good intentions in his first 10 months in office.
Former United States Senator John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, told the Associated Press that this would add to the damage to the United States’ reputation when President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told The Guardian that such a situation would make the US delegation look “ridiculous”, adding that “it would be bad for the US leadership, bad for the talks and catastrophic for the climate. Simply catastrophic. ”
Senator Manchin’s allegations
Senator Manchin has argued that the energy industry is making its own transition to renewables, and that it makes no sense to spend taxpayer dollars on something that is already happening.
Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Mr. Manchin’s assessment of the industry is accurate.
“We can achieve this if we allow the development and commercialization of various carbon capture technologies, which can then be used in the coal and natural gas sectors,” said Mr Hamilton. “Our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint as well. There is no objection to this. ”
But climate activists strongly oppose Mr. Manchin’s characterization of the industry’s progress in reducing emissions.
Mr. Manchin’s claims are “obviously false,” said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy and climate policy think tank.
“Over the last five years, from 2016 to 2020, America added about 1.1% of its annual clean energy. In 2020 we reached a record of 2.3%, which is a little more than half of a 4% increase. “
The personal interests of Senator Manchin
Critics of the West Virginia senator also point out that Mr. Manchin has a significant personal financial interest in the coal industry. He owns between $ 1 million and $ 5 million in shares in Enersystems Inc., a coal-trading firm he founded and now run by his son. Over the past decade he has been paid nearly $ 5 million by the company.
Regarding this apparent conflict of interest, Senator Manchin has been saying for years that his assets are held in a trust, which he does not control. However, the financial documents he has to make available to the Senate speak for the firm Enersystems.
Mr. Manchin also receives large donations to political campaigns from the fossil fuel industry in general, more than $ 250,000 so far for the 2022 election.
An industry that is dying
The coal mining industry, which Mr. Manchin aims to protect, has waned for decades as coal demand falls across the United States.
In 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the West Virginia coal industry, including “all employees engaged in manufacturing, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair, or mining operations, including office workers.” , employed 11,418 people, or about 1.4% of that state’s workforce.
The numbers dropped slightly in 2020 due to the pandemic and are likely to increase when the 2021 figures come out, but the long-term trend is quite clear. Since the early 1950s, when more than 125,000 men were extracting coal with spades and shovels in West Virginia, technological advances have reduced the number of employees in the industry.
During the 1990s there were less than 40,000 people employed in the coal industry in that state, and the numbers have continued to decline.
Adding to the decline in coal demand as energy companies switched to cleaner fuels, including natural gas, the landscape of a dying industry becomes more complete.
After reaching a peak of 158 million tonnes in 2008, West Virginia coal production has dropped significantly, to less than 100 million tonnes in recent years./VOA
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