Only a few months from the next legislative session, and as 2020 elections heat up, state leaders and candidates discussed environmental issues Saturday afternoon.
Environmental leaders, plus people vying for office, gathered in Charleston for the West Virginia Environmental Council’s 30th anniversary meeting at Coonskin Park, where they delved into priorities for the 2020 session.
“It’s good to be among friends,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, told a group of people huddled under a picnic shelter.
Hansen, elected to the Legislature in 2018, noted things that may seem like obvious good ideas might not be agreed on in the Capitol, like “there may be ways to protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time.”
Or, he said, acknowledging the existence of climate change, and that humans are responsible for the severity of the problem, “and look for solutions that might actually work in West Virginia, in a state we acknowledge has been tied to the fossil fuel industry but there still may be ways we can move forward and find ways to diversify the economy while acknowledging science.”
There are certainly bright spots, he said. One happened recently, when he and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, sat down to video conference with students across West Virginia about climate change.
“I think that was a success,” Hansen said.
People across the state do agree on a lot of environmental issues, said Stephen Smith, a Democrat candidate for governor.
“What I want to report back to you ... is the divide exists almost exclusively in the Capitol,” Smith told the crowd. “That outside of that building, there is wide and fundamental agreement about the necessity to protect our land and water and our children’s future. The number one issue we hear on the campaign trail isn’t jobs, it’s not the wall, it’s not immigration. It’s water.”
Second, he said, people often tell him about how it’s impossible to raise the severance tax on natural gas.
“It is impossible if we keep the leadership up there that we’ve had for the last 30 years, but if and when we put the people in charge, more than 75 percent of West Virginians favor a dramatic increase in the gas severance tax,” he said.
The way he sees it, he said, the job isn’t to convince people or change their mind, it’s to remove barriers and put people in charge of the government.
Asked by an attendee about supporting a platform to get to zero carbon emissions within a specific timeline, Smith said he’d be open to it — but with help. He said the same about ending subsidies for fossil fuel industries.
“I don’t want to set a goal to score political points, I want to set a goal to get there,” he said. He urged people at the picnic who “have an idea of how and by when and how much and how we get from Point A to Point Z” to get in touch so he can put it on his campaign draft plan.
The question, though, elicited some debate among some who said West Virginians may not be overwhelmingly in favor of a zero emissions plan.
Later, Smith was asked again whether he’d be willing to withstand the risk of losing votes in favor of supporting a zero emissions plan. He answered that he would, and that he was “open to big, bold things.”
A handful of legislators, officials and candidates spoke, including a representative for Cathy Kunkel, who’s running as a Democrat for West Virginia’s second congressional district, and Sam Petsonk, running as a Democrat for Attorney General. Other statewide candidates and incumbents were invited to speak, but didn’t attend.
Hansen came to the picnic with a few goals for the Legislature, including a bill that would increase penalties under the Clean Water Act. He also said he wanted a constitutional amendment that ensures the right to clean air, pure water and a healthy environment.
Hansen also said he was working again on his “Modern Jobs Act,” referred to as “Mojo.”
The bill would create opportunities for renewable energy on formerly mined land. Last session, the bill never made it to the House floor. But last month, Hanshaw expressed interest in such a bill. And in November, a joint interim committee will focus on renewable energy and that proposed legislation.
“I would follow that closely, because I think that has way more momentum than it did last session,” Hansen said.