The senator from West Virginia is bought and paid for by Big Coal. With his help the dying industry is pulling one final heist — and the entire planet may pay the price.By Jeff Goodell
January 10, 2022
At this point in human evolution, burning coal for power is one of the stupidest things humans do. Coal plants are engines of destruction, not progress. Thanks to the rapid evolution of clean energy, there are many better, cheaper, cleaner ways to power our lives. The only reason anyone still burns coal today is because of the enormous political power and inertia that the industry has acquired since the 19th century. In America, that power and inertia is embodied in the cruel and cartoonish character of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who, paradoxically, may have more control over the trajectory of the climate crisis than any other person on the planet right now. Kidus Girma, a 26-year-old Sunrise Movement activist who helped organize protests against Manchin this past fall, calls him “the final villain.”
Manchin’s influence comes from the fact that in an evenly divided Senate, he is the swing vote that can make or break legislation. He presents himself as a pragmatic man from a hardscrabble state who is always trying to do the right thing. He values good manners and civility, and sometimes seems to be channeling the folksy charm of another famous West Virginian, test pilot Chuck Yeager, who was immortalized in The Right Stuff.
The truth is, Manchin is best understood as a grifter from the ancestral home of King Coal. He is a man with coal dust in his veins who has used his political skills to enrich himself, not the people of his state. He drives an Italian-made Maserati, lives on a houseboat on the Potomac River when he is in D.C., pals around with corporate CEOs, and has a net worth of as much as $12 million. More to the point, his wealth has been accumulated through controversial coal-related businesses in his home state, including using his political muscle to keep open the dirtiest coal plant in West Virginia, which paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade in fees for coal handling, as well as costing West Virginia electricity consumers tens of millions of dollars in higher electricity rates (more about the details of this in a moment). Virginia Canter, who was ethics counsel to Presidents Obama and Clinton, unabashedly calls Manchin’s business operations “a grift.” To Canter, Manchin’s corruption is even more offensive than Donald Trump’s. “With Trump, the corruption was discretionary — you could choose to pay thousands of dollars to host an event at Mar-a-Lago or not,” Canter tells me. In contrast, Manchin is effectively taking money right out of the pockets of West Virginians when they pay their electric bills. They have no say in it. “It’s one of the most egregious conflicts of interest I’ve ever seen.”