Joe Manchin, America’s chief climate officer, is a coal baron | Mark Hertsgaard
Joe Manchin has never been so famous. People around the world now know that the Democrat of West Virginia is the indispensable 50th vote in the U.S. Senate that President Joe Biden needs to put his agenda into law. This also includes Biden’s climate agenda. In view of Manchin’s longstanding opposition to ambitious climate protection measures, this is not a good sign for defusing the climate emergency.
It turns out that the senator who wields this formidable power – America’s chief climate officer, you could call him – has a massive climate conflict of interest. Joe Manchin, investigative journalism has revealed, is a modern coal baron.
Financial records detailed by reporter Alex Kotch for the Center for Media and Democracy and published in the Guardian show that Manchin makes about half a million dollars annually in dividends from millions of dollars in stocks of coal companies he owns. The stock is held by Enersystems, Inc., a company Manchin founded in 1988 and later given to his son Joseph to run.
Coal has been the main driver of global warming since coal fueled the UK’s industrial revolution 250 years ago. Today the science is clear: The coal phase-out must take place immediately and worldwide in order to keep the 1.5-C target within reach.
scientist estimate that 90% of today’s coal reserves must remain in the ground. No new coal-fired power plants should be built. Existing systems should be quickly converted to solar and wind power, supplemented by a reduction in electricity demand with better energy efficiency in buildings and machines (which also saves money and creates more jobs).
This is not a vision that delights the heart of a coal baron. The idea of eliminating fossil fuels is “very, very worrying,” Manchin said in July when details of Biden’s climate agenda surfaced. Behind the scenes, Manchin allegedly appealed to Biden’s plan to punish electricity suppliers who don’t give up coal as quickly as science dictates.
The White House doesn’t sell it that way, but the huge budget bill now feverishly negotiated on Capitol Hill is as much a climate bill as anything else. The clean electricity program and other measures in this budget balancing bill are at the core of Biden’s plan to cut US climate pollution in half by 2030.
Apparently interested in delaying a vote on the bill – but not on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes billions in subsidies for climate-damaging programs like the production of hydrogen from methane – Manchin asked on CNN, “What’s the urgency?” to hand over the larger invoice. Like ExxonMobil, the Senator appears to have thrown climate denial overboard in favor of his presentable but no less deadly cousin: climate lag.
Later this month, Biden will team up with other leaders at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, described as a “now or never” moment in efforts to save a planet worth living in. Biden and his international climate envoy, John Kerry, have relied on other nations, particularly China, to reinforce their commitments. But Biden can only successfully advance this case in Glasgow if Congress passes the draft budget and its climate regulations are intact.
That will depend not least on Manchin, who with the 50th vote of the Democrats in the Senate now has a veto right in US climate policy.
It is not illegal for Senator Manchin to have millions of dollars in coal reserves – in fact, it exemplifies the old notion that the real The Washington scandal is legal – but it certainly raises questions about its impartiality in climate policy. Should a legislature with such a significant financial conflict of interest have a say in what the US government does on a life-threatening issue like the climate emergency? Shouldn’t there be a public discussion about whether this legislature should step back from such considerations?
In the area of justice, a judge who had such a financial conflict in a case would have to refuse and let another judge handle the proceedings. The legal code of ethics prescribes this approach not only because a judge’s financial interests would lead him to decide in his favor. It is also because the two parties contesting the case and the general public could not believe that a judge was doing justice to such a conflict.
Why not use a similar measure of the American public’s confidence in government policy, especially when it comes to the future of life on earth? Manchin could still vote for the budget; he just couldn’t touch his climate regulations.
Joe Manchin is surrounded by a bevy of reporters every time he leaves his Senate office and appears frequently on the daily television programs on Sunday mornings. The vote on the draft budget is getting closer and the Glasgow summit on October 31 makes it high time for journalists to urge America’s chief climate decision-maker on his blatant conflict of interests – and why he should not refrain from US climate consultations.
This story is published as part of Cover climate now, a global collaboration of news agencies that strengthen reporting on climate history. Mark Hertsgaard is the Executive Director of Climate Now