Coal and West Virginia are inextricably linked, a tie that the state’s visitor’s bureau touts. But the industry has been in decline, a function of economic shifts like the decreased cost of natural gas. The increasingly obvious effects of climate change — warming that is heavily a function of greenhouse gases emitted from burning coal to generate electricity — has meant that the industry also faces increasing political and social pressure.
While the state is home to only one-half of 1 percent of the country’s population, it also has 2 percent of the country’s senators. As the Democratic Party tries to put together a package of policies that will advance President Biden’s agenda, one of those two senators, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), has reportedly made clear that West Virginia’s coal industry will continue to be protected — even though burning coal contributes to global warming and even though it employs only about 0.008 percent of the country.
The proposal championed by Biden includes a policy that would encourage electricity generators to transition away from burning fossil fuels like coal. In 2019, a quarter of greenhouse gas emitted in the United States came from electricity generation. It accounted for almost a third of carbon-dioxide emissions. There have been efforts to produce coal that burns more cleanly, but without much success. Over the weekend, a plant once touted as a way to make coal a cleaner fuel source was imploded.
According to the New York Times, Manchin has insisted that the Democratic legislation drop the clean-energy transition effort. (His argument, it seems, is that the government doesn’t need to hasten a shift that’s already underway.) Biden, eager for a policy victory, is apparently poised to acquiesce.
It’s useful to remember just how small a part of the American economy the coal industry represents, much less the industry in West Virginia. In 2020, more than a quarter of coal industry jobs in the United States were in the state, according to the Energy Information Administration, but it amounted to only a bit over 11,000 people.
This isn’t just miners, this is the whole industry: “all employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair shop, or yard work at mining operations, including office workers.” And all of them combined add up to less than half of the student body at West Virginia University.
Even in West Virginia itself, the mining industry makes up only a relatively small part of employment. In August, there were about 40,000 unemployed people, twice the number of jobs in the mining and logging industry overall. Mining and logging jobs make up only 3 percent of employment in the state, less than every other industry besides information technology. There are seven times as many government employees in West Virginia as in mining and logging.
No senator wants to sign off on a policy that’s been framed (justifiably) as leading inexorably if slowly to the destruction of an industry in a state. I’m regularly reminded of 2009 research that showed how politicians are rewarded more for cleaning up disasters than for preventing them. In this case, Manchin is essentially casting the situation as a choice between disasters: forcing 11,000 West Virginians to seek new employment or continuing to contribute to global warming at a slowly eroding rate.
This isn’t Manchin’s only point of objection. Axios reports that he also wants to limit the child tax credit expansion included in the Democratic policy to households that make $60,000 or less. That is a shift that would disproportionately benefit West Virginians.
In 2019, the median household income in the United States was $65,712, compared with $48,850 in his state. In other words, most American households earn too much to hit Manchin’s standard; most West Virginia households don’t. Looking only at family households, the median income in West Virginia is just over $60,000. Nationally, it’s nearly $81,000.
The Census Bureau breaks out income distribution into groups. The most common income range for family households in West Virginia is $50,000 to $74,999 a year. In that state, only 44 percent of family households earn more than $75,000 a year. Nationally, more than 50 percent do.
Setting a benchmark that is more beneficial for his state than the country is revealing (and certainly not off-brand for a United States senator). It mirrors his position on the clean-energy standard: What’s important for Manchin is what’s important for West Virginia and little beyond those borders.
The difference, of course, is in the long-term outcome. The New York Times had another report on West Virginia over the weekend, exploring how torrential rain storms powered by climate change have increased flooding in the state. The effects of warming will be felt globally, hence the term “global warming.” But coal is an essential part of West Virginian culture, and West Virginia’s senator is an essential checkbox for any Democratic legislation, so here we are.