I’ve been there!
I know that place!
That’s what I exclaimed to myself at midnight Sunday as I read the online version of the New York Times. The story was about Joe Manchin, the U.S. senator from West Virginia who might as well be called King Manchin, given his power as the deciding Democrat with their 50-50 split in the Senate. Even now, he’s holding back, trying to protect the coal interests.
When I went to West Virginia in October 2017, I barely knew the name. I was there to research a story about that state’s inevitable transition from coal. I had pitched the story a year earlier to Planning, a magazine with whom I had a long association. I had wanted to do the story from Colorado and Wyoming. Wyoming then was far and away was the biggest coal-producing state, and it still is. It just doesn’t claw as much coal from the Powder River Basin as even four years ago.
The editor insisted the story needed to be in the Appalachian Mountains. “Because when people think about coal, they think about Appalachia,” she said.
It’s not a large-circulation magazine. I think it had 40,000 subscribers, and it’s probably lost ground since then to the digital world. But I liked that they allowed me to write about big topics even if I always had to worm comments from members of the planning profession into the stories for no reason other than it was a magazine for planners.
Expense money was rare. How I drool when I read about a Washington Post reporter spending 11 days driving from one end of Wyoming to another for just one story about Liz Cheney and the fractured political landscape of Wyoming Republicans. For this assignment, the editor gave me $450 for expenses, a princely sum by the standards of that magazine if not enough to cover my expenses.
I tacked the trip to the front end of trip to Pittsburgh for a conference, spending three nights in West Virginia. That’s not near enough to know the state, and I never strayed terribly far from the interstate highway. American, alas, looks too much alike from that perspective. West Virginia could be Nebraska with more trees. I did wander several times, though, including on my first day. After conducting interviews in Fairmont, which was a coal-mining city that is now carving out a new existence, I took off on a winding, two-lane road to see where it would take me.
This winding, narrow road—most of them are like that, I think—took me to a town called Farmington. As documented by the New York Times piece, this weathered little town with a Family Dollar near the center has become the crux for American politics and, in a way, the future of global climate change policies. This is the hometown of Joe Manchin, the decider in chief.
I noticed the name Manchin on the side of a modern-looking building. This was two blocks from a plaque that remembered a mining disaster in 1968 that killed 78 coal miners.
Passing through the town, I drove up a winding, narrow road. The landscape was verdant, the October weather delightful, and American flags were unfurled in front of every house.
One branch of my ancestors had come from this country, just across the state line in Pennsylvania. One Solomon Hinerman is today planted in Fort Morgan, Colo., the town on the Great Plains where I grew up. He had been born when Appalachia was rural and pastoral, not rural and industrial, a time before the industrial age began craving coal and other fossil fuels.
The thrust of the New York Times piece on Monday was that West Virginia, more than any other state, has been damaged by flooding. Evidence has accumulated that our weather had moved to extremes, whether hot, wet, or dry. See: Colorado River Basin. The Times had the statistics and it also had anecdotal evidence from West Virginia, including some who lived in or near Farmington. See: “As Manchin Blocks Climate Plan, His State Can’t Hold Back Floods.”
The Biden administration proposed a Clean Electricity Standard, to push utilities still invested in coal to instead invest in renewables. Colorado will achieve that goal rather easily. Of course, Colorado is blessed with renewables. Even West Virginia has renewables. Manchin, with his all-important 50th vote, won’t go along.
The political instinct is to survive, to live for another day. I understand that. But is the political career of one U.S. senator worth these ripple effects, a more laggard approach to decarbonizing our electrical supplies? It’s not as if many jobs are involved at this point. The coal industry in West Virginia has been shedding jobs for a century, mostly due to mechanization.
In West Virginia, I met smart people, good people. But the state’s political makeup opposes change, keeps wanting to stay in the 20th century instead of embracing what will be needed and what can also be good in the 21st century.
Later that same week, after trying to visiting the place in Appalachia where I still own mineral interests of some sort, I attended my conference in Pittsburgh. I learned about the time when Pittsburgh was cloaked in coal smoke, the steel mills billowing around the clock.
It was a different Pittsburgh during my visit. I do wish Joe Manchin could figure out a way to more ambitiously imagine the future that we need to imagine. While renewables have enjoyed tax subsidies, fossil fuels even now still enjoy enormous tax credits, too, and Manchin seems determined to keep them in place.
As a letter published in the Times this week said, history will not be kind to Joe Manchin. Of course, he matters only because there’s a 50-50 vote on this. Others aren’t stepping up, either.
— Allen Best, Oct. 20, 2021