Tom Rodd has an extraordinary vision.
The project director of the West Virginia Center on Climate Change can see Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a former scholarship football player at West Virginia University, running with planet Earth tucked under his arm as he heads for the end zone and a game-winning score.
Only what’s on the line isn’t a football game but the future of the planet, with West Virginia’s shorter-term economic prospects riding on Manchin’s every push forward too.
“I like that image of Joe getting across the goal line,” Rodd said.
In this vision, hitting paydirt means ensuring passage of President Joe Biden’s recently rolled out jobs and infrastructure plan, which Rodd thinks is full of solutions specifically tailored to help places like West Virginia.
“One can hope a year from now we can say, ‘Well, he got it across the goal line!’” Rodd said.
But many proponents of the $2 trillion Biden plan — which seeks to transform America’s energy framework to create millions of jobs, improve housing and transportation infrastructure and embrace energy efficiency measures — think Manchin is fumbling the ball.
Manchin’s support for Democratic priorities like the Biden infrastructure plan and voting rights is viewed as decisive in the evenly divided Senate, but he has sworn off reforming or eliminating the filibuster, dismissing criticism from fellow Democrats that his pursuit of bipartisan agreement is doomed by Republicans operating in bad faith and a barrier to fighting climate change and protecting the right to vote that could punish the most vulnerable in America for generations to come.
Manchin opposes increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% as Biden has proposed to support his jobs and infrastructure plan, floating a compromise of 25%. That means that all five members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, including fellow Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are against Biden’s plan as currently proposed, even though it shares priorities they have long supported, including broadband and carbon capture technology development.
“What I don’t understand is when I look at the components of the plan and [its goals] like 100% broadband coverage or investments in water and wastewater infrastructure, plugging orphan wells, cleaning up abandoned mines, those are all things that I’ve seen our congressional delegation support to different degrees,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said.
But it’s not just environmentalists like Rosser who are eager to reap potential benefits from the Biden plan.
“We welcome all the federal dollars that are in play and will potentially come into West Virginia to develop our infrastructure in these coal communities and towns,” West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton said. “We welcome any and all that and look forward to partnering with the Biden administration as the infrastructure program is implemented. We see greater power needs on the horizon with that plan.”
Rodd thinks one of the most promising aspects of the jobs and infrastructure plan for West Virginia is expansion and reform of a tax credit to spur investment in carbon capture technology, an approach unproven at the scale in which carbon dioxide emissions are captured from sources such as coal-fired power plants and are reused to create products, or stored permanently underground in geologic formations so they will not enter the atmosphere.
“President Biden’s ‘American Jobs Plan’ recognizes the central role that carbon capture will play in meeting net-zero emissions, and just as importantly, in creating and preserving jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, not only in energy, but also industrial production and manufacturing in states like West Virginia and elsewhere,” said Brad Crabtree, director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a nonprofit group advocating for federal support of carbon capture deployment.
Biden’s plan, which the White House has dubbed the American Jobs Plan, calls for 15 decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects in distressed communities with a new production tax credit and 10 new “pioneer” facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities. The proposal targets 40% of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities and would invest in communities affected by a market-based transition to clean energy.
“So it is directly aimed at helping places like West Virginia,” Rodd said.
It’s the funding mechanism of the American Jobs Plan that bothers Manchin, not its price tag. Manchin has called for up to $4 trillion in federal infrastructure investment and touted the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 that provided for electricity installation throughout rural America and transformed how West Virginia got its power as a model for broadband development in West Virginia.
Manchin has argued that nonprofit cooperatives are the key to making that model work, and the American Jobs Plan provides that model.
It proposes prioritizing support for broadband networks owned, operated by or affiliated with local nonprofits and co-operatives in an effort to build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100% coverage as part of a $100 billion broadband investment.
That could mean a big boost for communications-providing co-operatives like Hardy Telecommunications, which serves almost 4,300 broadband customers in mainly Hardy County and parts of Grant and Hampshire counties.
Born and raised in Hardy County and working mostly with people he went to elementary school with, Hardy Telecommunications Assistant General Manager Derek Barr appreciates the American Jobs Plan’s favor toward local co-ops committed to serving all of their communities.
“The amount of money that they’re talking about and focusing on the areas of the country that are still waiting to get good broadband, that’s fantastic,” Barr said. “Those are amounts that have never been talked about before.”
Still, Barr isn’t getting his hopes too high until more specifics about the American Jobs Plan come out. Barr fears that Hardy Telecommunications could be barred from using funding to build infrastructure in nearby areas for which federal support has already been designated to benefit from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a fund established last year to bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it.
FirstEnergy, too, is waiting to see detailed legislative language before it weighs in on the proposal, according to company Senior Consultant Mark Durbin.
The American Jobs Plan calls for $100 billion to bolster the nation’s power infrastructure, including building a more resilient electric transmission system, citing the fact that the United States endured 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2020 alone, costing $95 billion in damages to homes, businesses and public infrastructure.
American Electric Power, whose subsidiary Appalachian Power estimated spending between $55 million and $65 million on power restoration efforts in West Virginia in response to ice storms that caused a peak of 97,000 outages among its customers in February and has struggled with electric reliability issues, welcomed the American Jobs Plan.
“There are many positive aspects to the Biden Administration’s plan to accelerate the clean energy evolution, grow the U.S. economy and support the transition of communities where traditional energy jobs have driven the local economy,” American Electric Power spokesman Scott Blake said.
The proposal’s support for plugging orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines and building a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers by 2030 may not sound like traditional infrastructure, but Rosser sees them as inseparable parts of the plan.
“When people start talking about it as being the bigger picture of how infrastructure all connects together, you can’t just address one and leave the others out and expect normalistic progress,” Rosser said.
Rosser hasn’t lost confidence in Manchin or Capito, who said in a statement soon after Biden released his plan on March 31 that it “goes far beyond what constitutes as infrastructure” and predicted it would “aggressively drive down the use of traditional energy resources and eliminate good-paying jobs in West Virginia and across the country.”
“Sen. Manchin and Sen. Capito, they are in key positions to make sure West Virginia benefits from this plan,” Rosser said. “We’re counting on them.”