In April, the West Virginia Center on Climate Change’s project director envisioned Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a former scholarship football player at West Virginia University and coal brokerage founder, running with planet Earth tucked under his arm as he heads for the end zone and a game-winning score.
Paydirt meant the swing-voting senator ensuring passage of President Joe Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan in an evenly divided Senate.
“One can hope a year from now we can say, ‘Well, he got it across the goal line!’” project director Thomas Rodd told the Gazette-Mail.
Still short of the goal line two months later, Manchin’s sport changed at a webinar held by the Center on Climate Change geared toward easing West Virginia’s energy transition Tuesday evening.
“I think it would be just a huge mistake for the senator’s legacy not to swing at the ball here,” said Ted Boettner, senior researcher with the nonprofit think tank Ohio River Valley Institute. “I feel [it’s] like Barry Bonds in the World Series going up to the plate, and he decides he’s just not going to swing the bat.”
The webinar focused on an economic impact and job study released earlier this year that made the case for sweeping investments in Appalachian infrastructure.
The study released by the ReImagine Appalachia Coalition and the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy in February estimates that investing an average of $3.6 billion per year in clean energy projects in West Virginia from 2021 to 2030 could create 41,000 jobs annually in fields ranging from clean energy to land restoration and agriculture.
The study calls for a just transition program for fossil fuel industry-dependent workers and communities, although it acknowledges that the average compensation for fossil fuel-based workers in West Virginia, $77,000, is more than the average compensation of $52,000 for work in the clean energy sector.
The study also proposes that all displaced workers facing pay cuts receive 100% compensation insurance for three years, guaranteeing about $42,000 per worker per year for an estimated 1,400 workers annually.
Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst understands skepticism he’s faced for the proposal.
“Here’s the kind of thing I’ve gotten: ‘OK, professor, great, this study [has] big numbers. It sounds really good. But it’s not going to happen. You’re going to have your job, and I’m not going to have my job,’” Pollin said. “It’s a completely legitimate concern, because we do not have a just transition program that has been successful.”
But Pollin said most of his proposal could be financed by whatever version of Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan might be enacted.
That’s where Manchin comes in.
“I think it’s really critical for people to lobby Senator Manchin to see the massive benefits for the state,” Pollin argued. “This is an opportunity for West Virginia to be front and center, in terms of providing new opportunities in the state, good jobs in the state.”
Manchin has refused to support a rollback of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which would allow Democrats to pass the infrastructure proposal without clearing a 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber.
Manchin joined 20 other senators — eight Democrats, one independent (Sen. Angus King, I-Maine) and, potentially crucially, 11 Republicans — in issuing a brief statement Wednesday evening supporting framework for a bipartisan but otherwise unspecified infrastructure package.
Senators have signaled that the package could leave out clean energy investments that Pollin said could be pivotal in carrying West Virginia through the energy transition.
“I think Manchin should really embrace this,” Pollin said. “It’s the opportunity, really, of a generation.”