Democrat Senator Joe Manchin’s decision to support a climate and energy package that will accelerate the nation’s transition away from coal has left Coal county reeling. The Inflation Reduction Act includes several subsidies to build renewable vitality initiatives on former coal fields and the everlasting extension of a tax on coal corporations that funds advantages for miners affected by black lung illness.
Every 1 in 5 miners in Appalachia reportedly suffers from black lung disease. This disease is rampant as it is caused by miners inhaling toxic coal and silica dust while working. Doctors have still not found a cure to this deadly disease, which slowly cuts off oxygen flow.
Advocates who fought for this extension told Manchin that the benefits provided by the Act would be at risk since the exercise tax was expired. This had disrupted its inclusion as a win for workers who are typically not influential in Washington.
Gary Hairston, a former West Virginia coal miner of 27 years who now leads the National Black Lung Association, said, “We were surprised. We thought it’d be a four-year or 10-year [extension]. So, when we have it permanently, we might not need to worry about it anymore.”
However, Manchin had told the press, “The big push I’m getting from coal operators right now is paying the black lung fund, and that’s a shame.“
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Leaders of Appalachian coal teams and the West Virginia Coal Association wrote in a letter that the excise tax would cost them millions of dollars and destroy their ability to compete and maintain a steady energy cost. In addition, hundreds of coal-fired power plants have shut down over the past decade amid the emergence of cleaner and more efficient energy sources, troubling Appalachia’s coal mining companies.
They wrote, “This legislation is so egregious, it leaves those of us that call Senator Manchin a friend, shocked and disheartened.” The coal industry has continuously attacked Manchin for making the tax permanent and pushing policies to reduce other energy sources despite their pleas. Following this, Rep. Alex Mooney came out to fight for the coal industry and voiced out using television advertisements. “Alex Mooney won’t let Joe Manchin and Joe Biden destroy our coal industry and devastate West Virginia.”
Following estimates from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, the West Virginia coal industry, at its peak, employed about 125,000 employees, and this figure has dropped to less than 12,000 in addition to 36,000 independent contractors.
The Nature Conservancy and West Virginia Chamber of Commerce released a survey last year, finding that most West Virginians believe that the state should reduce its reliance on coal and shift to renewable energy sources, a significant shift in public opinion.
Thomas Minney, West Virginia state director at the Nature Conservancy, said, “This is a traditional energy state, but folks in West Virginia are also interested in looking at what the new energy economy can bring to the state in terms of jobs and economic development and economic diversification.”
Though Manchin’s popularity had risen since he disagreed with the Democrat’s $2 trillion Build Back Better Act, it is still not certain that West Virginia will embrace Manchin’s climate deal or Manchin himself in the future. This backlash from the coal business, conservatives, and GOP lawmakers has left a blank check for political challengers forward of Manchin’s upcoming reelection battle.