The West Virginia House of Delegates voted Thursday to repeal the state’s energy portfolio in a move they say will save coal jobs and prevent utility rates from skyrocketing.
After more than an hour of discussion, House Bill 2001 passed 95-4, with Delegates Mike Pushkin and Nancy Guthrie, both D-Kanawha; Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson; and Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, casting the dissenting votes. Supporters of the bill say the 2009 legislation hurt the coal industry by mandating utilities also purchase electricity generated from other sources, such as wind or solar.
“We can’t say this hasn’t impacted our state because it has,” said Delegate Randy Smith, R-Preston.
Smith is the co-chairman of the House Energy Committee and said he first ran for office because he disagreed with the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, championed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin in 2009. He said the market, not government, should decide how electricity is generated.
“We’re not here to pick winners or losers or give one group an advantage over another group,” he said. “We’re here to be fair and let the market dictate what wins and what loses.”
The 2009 legislation requires 25 percent of electricity to be generated from alternative or renewable energy sources by 2025. Sammy Gray, the manager of state affairs for FirstEnergy, told a legislative committee last week the company could meet that standard without risking jobs or raising rates.
Opponents of the bill argued the original legislation could create economic diversification in a declining coal market.
“Until we can open our eyes and realize that coal amounts for 6 percent of (gross domestic product) and is sucking up 94 percent of the air in the room, we’re going to wear coal around our neck like a yoke that will drag all of us down,” Guthrie said. She went on to say the debate around House Bill 2001 was “political theater.”
Fleischauer said she was bothered by the accusation that anyone against repealing the legislation was against coal jobs. She pointed to coal mines in her area that are doing well.
“Repealing this has nothing to do with increasing or decreasing jobs,” she said. “I’m kind of offended that anyone would suggest that people who urge rejection are opposed to coal miners.
“I’m tired of coal miners being used to promote a message they don’t necessarily agree with,” she added.
Efforts to amend the bill failed on Wednesday. Pushkin wanted to see a jobs impact statement added. Although Republicans passed a rule at the beginning of the legislative session that would allow the House speaker or Senate president request such studies, Speaker Tim Armstead ruled his amendment wasn’t germane to the bill at hand. Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, proposed an educational program to help displaced coal miners, but Armstead again ruled the amendment wasn’t germane.
The Senate passed its version, Senate Bill 1, on Wednesday. Both chambers will work on merging the bills to send before sending one to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. “I don’t think it will make a big difference if it’s repealed,” he said.
Manchin’s thoughts when he advocated for an energy portfolio act in 2009, Tomblin said, were to show the Environmental Protection Agency that West Virginia has resources other than coal at its disposal.
“It would be helpful to show West Virginia is not just a coal state, but we do have alternative fuels and lots of investments there,” Tomblin said of the original legislation.
Manchin issued a statement last week, blasting House Bill 2001 and Senate Bill 1. He also said the law protects environmental interests while promoting job growth and creating incentives for the use of state-of-the-art energy technology.
“The utilities have successfully met the 2015 goals and do not anticipate any issues with meeting the 2020 and 2025 goals,” Manchin said. “West Virginia was the only state that showed, if we take advantage of clean energy technologies, we can reduce emissions while still utilizing coal. It is my belief that West Virginia’s energy policies can be used as a template for future national energy policies to strike that balance between environmental concerns and America’s energy needs.”