Angie Rosser smiled while addressing a hundred West Virginia climate advocates huddled together on a rainy afternoon in Charleston Saturday.
“I haven’t seen Senator Manchin show up just yet,” Rosser said. “We’re still waiting.”
The senator still isn’t with them. Not yet, anyway.
Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and the climate advocates before her in front of the Robert C. Byrd Courthouse had gathered to pressure U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to support the framework of President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate and social spending agenda released two days earlier.
The framework would allot $555 billion for climate and clean energy spending, providing what West Virginia proponents say would be an unprecedented boost to a state struggling with a carbon-intensive, undiversified economy.
“We need Senator Manchin and Senator Capito,” South Charleston resident and former state Department of Environmental Protection Environmental Advocate Pam Nixon said. “They both are always talking about how they want to help West Virginians and how they’re helping West Virginians. Well, we need them right now to vote for this bill.”
But Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has united with fellow Republicans against the bill framework, leaving a noncommittal and fossil fuel-defending Manchin as a key holdout vote in the evenly divided Senate.
Manchin said in a statement Monday that he was not yet ready to support Biden’s 10-year, $1.75 trillion budget bill, repeating deep concerns that the bill would expand the national debt and exacerbate the nation’s inflation.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki countered Manchin’s message in a statement Monday, predicting that the bill would reduce the deficit, combat inflation and create jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, which found that the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill would add $256 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years, has not yet scored the full Biden budget package, which the White House has called the Build Back Better framework.
The plan — which the White House said upon its release was “negotiat[ed] in good faith” with Manchin — would provide rebates and tax credits for clean energy shifts that the White House pledged would save families hundreds of dollars in energy costs per year.
The framework does not include the program climate experts said would have been the most effective climate change-slowing tool in the package — a $150 billion program to 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 objected to inclusion of the program, questioning its usefulness though studies projected it would boost clean power growth and create jobs in West Virginia.
The bill would appropriate $360 million for contractor training grants to support home energy efficiency retrofits and $5.89 billion for state energy offices to provide rebates for retrofits. Home energy efficiency retrofit rebates for high-efficiency natural gas heating, ventilation, air conditioning and cooling systems and water heaters would be eligible for six years after the bill’s date of enactment.
The Build Back Better Act would allot $5 billion for replacing heavy-duty vehicles with zero-emission vehicles, and invest $2 billion in state, local and nonprofit efforts to install zero-emission vehicle charging or fueling infrastructure.
The bill includes a $230.5 million allotment for air quality monitoring via grants and other activities as well as $50 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and reduce air pollution at public schools in low-income and disadvantaged communities.
The proposal would allot $500 million for the Department of Energy to provide funding to states for resiliency, energy efficiency, renewable energy and grid integration improvements at public and nonprofit buildings.
The Legislature passed a bill in the 2021 session aiming to reduce energy usage in all state buildings to 25% below 2018 levels by 2030 and require annual reports to the Legislature on building energy performance compared to similar buildings in similar climates. The net benefit to the state from the bill will be a 9-to-1 return on investment, according to a state Department of Commerce estimate projecting a five-year project cost of $300,000.
The bill would also provide $3 billion in funding for environmental and climate justice block grants.
Nixon called for environmental and climate justice block grants, energy efficiency tax credits and rebates and enhanced water and wastewater treatment infrastructure at Saturday’s rally in Charleston.
Nixon, 69, who is Black, rejected Manchin’s concern that the Build Back Better agenda would encourage an “entitlement society.”
“West Virginians need these. These are not entitlements,” Nixon said. “When I hear the term ‘entitlements,’ I guess I’m one of the old school and came up during the time when ‘entitlements’ was a dog whistle because that’s when they were talking about entitlements for Blacks and people of color. So when Manchin says the word ‘entitlements,’ that just went all through me.”
As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin has advocated an “innovation, not elimination” energy policy that embraces fossil fuels alongside renewable energy.
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. He has denied that his vested coal interests have influenced his policymaking that affects the coal industry. But he has declined to divest his holdings, saying his ownership is held in a blind trust and, therefore, avoids a conflict of interest.
He has championed carbon capture, use and storage technology, which gathers and compresses carbon from emission sources for reuse or underground storage so it will not reenter the atmosphere. Such technology is not yet proven at a commercial scale.
The bill includes heavy investments to support that goal.
The Carbon Capture Coalition, a nonpartisan collaboration of more than 80 businesses and organizations supporting economywide deployment of carbon capture, announced its support for the framework, noting that it would significantly boost tax credit values to accelerate deployment.
“We are truly right on the cusp of doing something transformational for the planet we’re leaving our kids, for working families, and for communities that have given so much to the nation,” Tom Cormons, executive director of the environmental group Appalachia Voices, said in a statement. “We need to lean into that, keep calling our senators, and get this over the finish line.”
Cormons hailed the framework for its grants and tax credits to encourage solar projects in low-income and tribal communities and four-year extension of the excise tax that supports the fiscally stressed Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and is slated to expire at the end of 2021.
“The inclusion of this four year extension of funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is not all that is needed to address the long-term solvency of the Trust Fund, but it is a crucial step forward,” Rebecca Shelton policy and organizing director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Kentucky-based nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners with black lung, said in a statement.
Dan Taylor, Appalachian regional field organizer for the BlueGreen Alliance between labor unions and environmental organizations, applauded the framework’s focus on ensuring solar panel and wind turbine production in America and $970 million in funding for lead service line replacements.
“We can and should build good-paying, union jobs for workers here in West Virginia and across the country while doing our part in the fight against climate change,” Taylor said in a statement. “We urge Congress to act now to advance this historic legislation.”
West Virginia’s narrow valleys, steep slopes and historically long power outages steep make it especially vulnerable to climate change impacts that include greater flooding and more intense storms.
West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light sponsored a day of prayer Monday, All Saints Day, in conjunction with Saturday’s rally.
“I am deeply concerned about the accelerating effects of climate change, both in West Virginia and around the globe,” Rev. Robin Blakeman, a member of the West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light steering committee, said in a statement. “For the sake of our children and grandchildren, I am fervently praying that Senator Manchin supports the full Build Back Better agenda.”