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The Man Who Gobbed Up Earth
Joe Manchin and the Biden Administration's Painful Turn from Climate Action
Just as the Oscars were getting underway last night, the New York Times published a truly remarkable exposé that helps us understand the end of our planet’s climate system in helpful detail. Receipt-laden, it shows that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has devoted his entire career in public service to keeping one particularly filthy power plant in operation, one that uses a low-grade coal mixed with clay called, poetically, “gob.”
He created his business while a state lawmaker in anticipation of the Grant Town plant, which has been the sole customer for his gob for the past 20 years, according to federal data. At key moments over the years, Mr. Manchin used his political influence to benefit the plant. He urged a state official to approve its air pollution permit, pushed fellow lawmakers to support a tax credit that helped the plant, and worked behind the scenes to facilitate a rate increase that drove up revenue for the plant — and electricity costs for West Virginians.
The reporting by Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate is remarkable in its depiction of a single-mindedly venal human, who obtained his Maserati and his yacht on the wheezing lungs of his constitutents. It builds on other good investigations from The Intercept and Rolling Stone.
And it left me in uncharacteristic despair, because Manchin’s old-school corruption has collided with the politics of the last year—and the last month—in such a way as to potentially wreck the last real chance at climate progress in a timeframe that jibes with the science.
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Let us review. The last Democratic primaries saw the breakthrough of climate as an issue—indeed, by some polls the issue. Biden was not its strongest champion, but he understood it to be key to consolidating support after his primary win; he negotiated with Bernie’s team (AOC, the Sunrise Movement) on a version of the Green New Deal that became Build Back Better, and he appointed an all-star cast of climate leaders, from Gina McCarthy to John Kerry, to make the issue a central part of his presidency.
And then they ran into Manchin, who is not only a coal baron (a gob baron) but who has taken more fossil fuel money than anyone else in DC, and who, as a result, an Exxon executive who didn’t know he was being taped described as their “kingmaker.” Manchin has dangled his possible support for Build Back Better for more than a year now, which meant that the administration pulled all their climate punches for fear of offending him and losing that vote: they’ve granted more oil and gas leases than Trump, they let the Line 3 pipeline proceed though it is identical in size and function to the KXL pipeline the Obama Biden adminsitration blocked on cliamt gorunds almsot a decade ago, and so on. And in return, so far, they’ve got…next to nothing.
Now, Putin’s vicious war in Ukraine has given them another opening. Since it’s funded by fossil fuels (in this case Exxon was one of Putin’s kingmakers), and since there’s powerful emotional anger, it could have been the moment to finally make the breach with fossil fuels: imagine a President Biden announcing an all out effort to get us and Europe off gas and oil as fast as possible. But instead Secretary of Energy Granholm has been touring Europe with…Captain Corruption. And he’s back to dangling his possible support for clean energy tax credits, provided he gets all kinds of commitments to an “all of the above” energy policy.
Through all this, the main American energy response to Putin’s war has been to “surge” liquefied natural gas to Europe, which is the top item on Big Oil’s wishlist. As the energy analyst Justin Guay pointed out in a useful twitter thread, this would be okay if they explicitly made it a short-term effort to reallocate existing supplies, but instead they’re clearly planning on building new infrastructure and locking in the supply for many years to come. As the Wall Street Journal summed it up, “Natrual-Gas Industry Gets Boost as Biden Shifts Stance.” They seem, in other words, to be choosing precisely the wrong version of the Marshall Plan—not heat pumps for peace, but natural gas for climate destruction. And all for a little less political pain along the line—some kind of deal with Manchin that frees up some tax credits for solar panels, say.
The climate movement has come very close—one Senator close—to beating the political power of Big Oil. But that’s not quite close enough. Maybe we’ll win some more Senate seats in the midterms, though that seems less likely than losing control of Congress—especially since it’s a little hard to rally the base. Young people voted very heavily for team Biden, and their number one issue by far was climate change. Does it seem possible to you they may not bother to vote? It does to me.
I am aware that this is a depressing little essay, at a depressing little moment in history. In an effort to salvage something from it, let me say that last night’s weird dust-up at the Academy Awards should remind us of one thing: right in the middle of all the action, Summer of Soul won the Best Documentary prize, and it may be the most remarkable musical movie ever. Will Smith may not actually be a “vessel for God’s love,” but Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples surely are—watch their duet if you are feeling down and then get back to the fight!