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U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s pushback against what advocates say is the most critical climate measure in a social services and climate budget bill that includes much of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda has West Virginia environmentalists on edge.

West Virginia’s Democrat senior senator has questioned the need for the proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program, a $150 billion plan that would authorize grants for electricity providers that increase clean electricity use by 4% or more annually from 2023 through 2030 and penalties for those that don’t.

Manchin, who has extensive financial coal industry ties, has told the White House that he strongly opposes the program, The New York Times reported Friday evening.

Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon emphasized the senator’s unhappiness with the program when asked for comment.

“Senator Manchin has clearly expressed his concerns about using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing,” Runyon wrote in an email. “He continues to support efforts to combat climate change while protecting American energy independence and ensuring our energy reliability.”

Runyon did not respond to a request for further comment.

Climate advocates have identified the Clean Electricity Performance Program as the policy in the proposed $3.5 trillion, 10-year budget bill that would enable the most progress toward the immediate and large-scale reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed to avoid the most devastating, irreversible effects of climate change.

Manchin’s support is crucial in an evenly divided Senate and his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Program proponents predict its direct pay incentive would keep ratepayers from bearing the cost of the energy transition.

In a letter addressed to Manchin on Friday, before The New York Times report, the West Virginia Climate Alliance — a coalition of 18 environmental, faith-based, civil rights and civic organizations — endorsed the Clean Electricity Performance Program and warned the senator that the nation’s transition to clean energy will “simply not happen fast enough” if the program is not enacted.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for a “death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet” in an August statement accompanying a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The Climate Alliance cited that report in its letter that urged reaching net-zero carbon emissions to reduce extreme rainfall and flooding in West Virginia and throughout the Eastern United States for generations to come.

The Climate Alliance argued that West Virginia, the nation’s second-largest coal producer behind Wyoming, would benefit disproportionately from the program.

“[I]f Senator Manchin now wants to scrap the CEPP, it is incumbent on him to propose alternative means of achieving a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” Climate Alliance co-founder Perry Bryant said in an email.

That’s the percentage from 2010 levels by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has indicated emissions must decline by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst effects of a warming world.

“Senator Manchin can change this trajectory,” West Virginia Environmental Council Vice President Sandra Fallon said in a statement. “We urge him to seize this historic opportunity and put the U.S. on a path to real climate solutions.”

Manchin has made $4.35 million since 2012 from stock he owns in Enersystems Inc., the Fairmont-based coal brokerage he founded in 1988, according to his U.S. Senate financial disclosures.

“We’re eager, as the rest of the nation is, to find out specifically what Senator Manchin is thinking of, if it’s not the Clean Electricity Performance Program, that he thinks makes sense or [if it] won’t work, what does he believe will work?” said West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser, one of the Climate Alliance members who signed the alliance’s letter to Manchin.

West Virginia’s coal industry appreciates Manchin’s pushback against the Clean Electricity Performance Program.

“Nobody says it better than Senator Manchin when he insists we need to ‘innovate, not eliminate,’” West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton said in an email, echoing Manchin’s energy policy mantra opposed to cutting fossil fuels from the nation’s resource portfolio.

Hamilton said he supports Manchin’s emphasis on carbon emission control technologies.

Politicians representing constituencies like West Virginia, where coal still plays a major role in the economy and electric generation, have embraced developing carbon capture, use and storage technologies unproven at commercial scale as a way to keep coal in the energy mix amid the country’s shift toward reducing emissions and the rise of renewable resource use.

United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith expressed support for Manchin’s stance on the Clean Electricity Performance Program.

“We have long said there needs to be a real pathway for the application of carbon capture and storage for coal included in any energy transition plan, both in terms of providing time for the technology to be installed at power plants and providing adequate incentives for utilities to want to install it,” Smith said in an email. “Neither of those objectives are included in the CEPP that is before the Senate right now.”

Smith said the program fails to meet the labor union’s energy transition goals of creating new, well-paying union jobs for members who already have lost a coal industry job and providing an economic bridge for members who might lose their jobs to learn new skills, without falling into poverty.

But the program’s supporters have predicted it would pay great economic dividends for West Virginia.

A report released last month by the independent economics consulting firm Analysis Group found a clean electricity payment program would result in an increase of 7.7 million jobs, a $907 billion economic boost and $154 billion more in increased tax revenue for federal, state and local governments by 2031.

Reaching the program’s 2030 carbon emissions reduction goal would add 3,508 full-time jobs here, swell total earnings for state residents by $172 million through 2040 and bring $20.9 billion of investment in new power plants, according to a report by West Virginia University researchers and economic modeling experts.

Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd alluded to the Clean Electricity Performance Program as a “polic[y] of exclusion” in an email.

“[W]e need market-driven solutions that leverage the abundant, home-grown resources right in our backyards to invest more and strengthen America’s status as a global energy and environmental leader,” Burd said.

Despite Manchin’s critique of the program, the energy portfolio of American Electric Power, whose subsidiary, Appalachian Power, has 1 million customers in West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee (as AEP Appalachian Power in the latter state), suggests that AEP has not been doing what the program would pay it to do at the pace the program would demand.

Hydro, wind, solar and pumped storage composed 18% of AEP’s generating resource portfolio, as of April 2021 — just 14 percentage points more than they combined for in 1999. That’s a net annual increase of only 0.63 percentage points over 22 years. AEP has a target of raising that share to 51% by 2030 — still only 3.7 percentage points a year.

AEP has set a goal of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

In a recent letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, AEP Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs Tony Kavanagh said the clean electricity performance program “is forcing clean energy development too rapidly.”

The West Virginia Public Service Commission approved a plan last week for state ratepayers to cover the cost of wastewater treatment plant upgrades federally required to keep three in-state coal-fired plants operating past 2028. The plan was rejected by Kentucky and Virginia ratepayers as uneconomic.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has opposed the Clean Electricity Performance Program.

“[W]e’ve got to make sure that the transition happens at a pace that gets us to that 45% reduction by 2030,” Rosser said. “We just can’t miss that mark.”

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony

@hdmediallc.com. Follow

@Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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