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“What now?”

That was the title of a webinar that the West Virginia Center on Climate Change hosted Monday night looking ahead to how state and federal legislators and climate activists will respond to the climate crisis and address environmental concerns.

The webinar’s speakers, state House Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, S&P Global Market Intelligence senior energy policy reporter Molly Christian and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action national organizer and spokesperson Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, focused on political priorities coming into view as the nation moves forward with a new president and newly Democratic-controlled Congress and the state legislative session begins in two weeks.

Hansen outlined several climate-conscious bills that he plans to sponsor in the new legislative session that would build on measures the Legislature took in the last session.

One bill that Hansen said would have bipartisan sponsorship would approve residential solar power purchase agreements to allow third-party developers to build and own solar panels on residential or business properties at little or no upfront cost to them, lowering their power bills.

A power purchase agreement stalled in the Senate Economic Development Committee last year after a bipartisan group of sponsors introduced it.

Hansen said a power purchase agreement bill would save schools, churches and nonprofits money and create jobs given an uptick in solar installation demand across the state.

Hansen previewed a bill that he expects to garner bipartisan support that would set a state target of saving 30% by 2030 on energy bills, a goal following up on a study resolution the Legislature passed last session to examine utility costs in hundreds of state buildings.

A third bill would set up an advisory committee consisting of elected officeholders, economic development officials and residents of communities impacted by mine closures and related job losses that would focus on navigating a “just transition” for West Virginia to attract resources and programs to support those communities.

The bill passed the House 100-0 in February, 10 days before the session ended, and Hansen is optimistic that the bill will become law this session and allow West Virginia more autonomy in figuring out its economic future as it looks to revitalize coal communities.

“Now is a particularly important time to do that after this election, because we really want to be able to align state policies with what’s going on at the federal level,” Hansen said.

There’s been a lot going on at the federal level pointing toward an energy transition in the first week of the Biden presidency, Christian noted, pointing out early Biden administration moves so far like reentering the Paris climate agreement aimed at limiting global warming, directing federal agencies to review dozens of Trump administration environmental rules with an eye toward overturning many of them, revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and temporarily halting approvals of fossil fuel leasing in federal areas.

Christian also noted President Joe Biden’s proposal of a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers, low-income and minority communities, which includes guaranteed pensions and health benefits for miners’ families, making companies increase payments toward black lung benefits and pushing for 40% of clean energy investments to be made in disadvantaged communities.

West Virginia had just under 14,000 underground and surface coal mining employees in 2019, down 38% from 2009, according to West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety & Training data.

Christian said the slimness of Democrats’ majority in Congress raises the importance of bipartisan support, which could be a potential barrier for Biden’s more ambitious climate goals.

Emphasizing that young Christians care about climate change, Meyaard-Schaap argued that they are the right messengers to advocate for action to address it. Meyaard-Schaap cited a 2019 study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change that found that children can foster concern about climate change among their parents, with daughters appearing to be especially effective in influencing parents.

“Despite what you might be hearing, evangelicals are not a monolith,” Meyaard-Schaap said.

“I think a lot of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have big evangelical bases,” Christian said. “ … [T]he more they can say, ‘This is a big issue for my district and this is what the evangelical community is saying,’ the greater chance it’s going to be prioritized.”

Hansen called for sensitivity to the impact of America’s energy transition on West Virginia.

“But I think there’s a place to recognize and appreciate coal miners and everything the mining industry has done in the past and is doing now and will continue to do for some time in the future, because we’re going to be mining and burning coal in West Virginia for many years,” Hansen said. “ … But we’re in a time now where we can both recognize that on the one hand and on the other hand, recognize how urgent it is to address the transition that is happening to the state whether we like it or not.”

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