The Senate’s New Point Man on Climate Has Been the Democrats’ Most Fossil Fuel-Friendly Senator

West Virginia's Joe Manchin once shot a hole in a climate bill in a campaign ad. People who know him say his views have since evolved.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on Dec. 14, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on Dec. 14, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Share this article

Kingmaker. Linchpin. Occupier of the cat-bird seat.

These are the colorful descriptions of the anticipated role of Sen. Joe Manchin—the centrist West Virginia Democrat—in a new Congress under his party’s control.

As the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Manchin will be a key factor in any number of controversial legislative matters, from health care to immigration. But after a presidential campaign that was animated more than any other by concerns about global warming, Manchin could not find himself perched in a more significant—some might say ironic—position. 

The senator who famously shot a bullet through a copy of Congress’ last major climate bill in a 2010 political advertisement is now well-positioned to determine how much of President-elect Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate and jobs program becomes law.

Newsletters

We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

Manchin has made a career out of defending his state’s coal industry, and he promotes a regional petrochemical buildout. But now, due to Democrats’ success in two Senate runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5, Manchin is in line to become chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has great influence in setting national energy policy, and, as a result, climate policy.

Manchin is no ideologue. People who have followed his career closely note that he’s moved to where he no longer supports blowing up mountains to mine for coal and accepts mainstream climate science. 

He likes to make deals, has friends who care about the climate in both parties, and says he wants to bring Democrats and Republicans together around a cleaner energy future.

Still, his ascendance could be the latest political reality check for Americans who have for years wanted Congress to adopt major legislation to tackle the climate crisis, but so far have been left waiting.

“Usually, discussions of climate change are dominated by people on the East and West coasts of this country,” said Ted Boettner, a West Virginia-based senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, a think tank with a focus on clean energy and social equity. “But they are going to have to drive through Sen. Manchin to get anything done.”

A Conservative Democrat in Trump Country

Last week’s surprise runoff victories in Georgia by the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats with a climate agenda of their own, allow Democrats to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The party has wrestled back control of the Senate from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican leader. It was McConnell who led the fight against President Barack Obama’s efforts to further regulate coal and power plants that burn it to protect air and water, and to curb their heat-trapping emissions. 

McConnell has no climate plan and embraced President Trump’s pro-fossil fuels agenda. The two losing Republican incumbents in Georgia, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, did the same.  

Manchin, 73, is a dying breed—an old school Democrat in a state that he watched turn solidly Republican, in part because of the Democratic Party and its support for environmental regulations. Trump beat Biden by 39 percentage points there in November.

Manchin has held the seat formerly occupied by Robert C. Byrd since Byrd’s death in 2010. He’s been re-elected twice, in 2012 and in 2018. Previously Manchin served as a state lawmaker, secretary of state and governor. He comes from a well-known political family and has a folksy and sincere way of speaking.

Twice he flirted with the idea of joining President Trump’s cabinet, in 2016 and again in 2018, though he recently described Trump as “rogue” after the president incited his supporters to attack the Capitol building in response to Biden’s victory, and thanked Twitter on Friday for suspending Trump’s account.

Manchin was not available for an interview, according to his staff. But after the Georgia election results, Manchin called for a new era of bipartisanship.

“With tight margins in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans are faced with a decision to either work together to put the priorities of our nation before partisan politics, or double down on the dysfunctional tribalism,” he said.

“For the sake of the country we all love, we must commit to solving the serious problems facing our nation.”

‘Major Powerbroker’ Will Look for Bipartisan Solutions

The expected new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, will have little margin for maneuvering. There will be 50 senators in the Democratic Party caucus and 50 Republican senators, with incoming Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. 

The most liberal Democrats in Congress will likely need to appease Manchin if they want to get anything done, including climate legislation.

“If it is a 50-50 Senate, and under Democrat control, Sen. Manchin really becomes a very important political player in Washington for the next two years. Full stop,” said Sasha Mackler, director of energy projects for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. “He will be a linchpin. He is positioned to be a major power broker.”

Mackler expects Manchin to do what he’s always done, and that is look for bipartisan solutions by working on his relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike. That has the potential for long-term success, he said.

“That kind of mentality and attitude really can drive important legislative and policy change that is enduring,” he said. “And that is what we need when it comes to energy and climate in particular.”

But can climate policy driven by a conservative Democrat from a coal and gas state, who is reaching out to moderate Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of oil-producing Alaska, be robust enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, as scientists say is required to avoid catastrophe?

In the five years since 197 nations signed the Paris agreement with that goal to limit warming, humans have emitted another 200 gigatons of greenhouse gases. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015 and dozens of studies have shown clear links between warming and deadly extreme weather.

Environmental groups are already letting their expectations on climate policy to be known.

“We won in Georgia, but the fight isn’t over,” the Sunrise Movement posted on Twitter on Thursday. “We must continue to push some Democrats to adopt bold climate policy.”

Sunrise supports the Green New Deal, the resolution from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing that calls for a massive shift in federal spending to create union jobs, build economic justice and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050. Manchin does not.

But climate-focused progressives fought to flip the Georgia Senate seats to Democrats, thus giving Manchin his moment and, perhaps, earning some political capital with him. Ariel Hayes, the national policy director of the Sierra Club, tweeted on Wednesday that her environmental group had “worked hard to mobilize pro-climate voters in the state, reaching over 3 million Georgians through calls, texts, and letters. It’s clear that our efforts made a meaningful difference—and that climate is a winning issue.”

Democrats, she wrote, “have a clear mandate to pass” President-elect Joe Biden’s “bold climate plan and a robust stimulus package. We will work with them every step of the way.”

From Fossil Fuels to ‘All of the Above’

It’s not that Manchin will be the sole driver of climate policy in Congress. Climate change is an economy-wide problem, so other senators and other committees will also be important.

But any comprehensive climate legislation that affected energy policy likely would have to go through his committee, although more narrowly targeted climate measures—such as bills on farms or forest policy—could avoid it.

Manchin is a fossil fuel guy. But in the parlance of politics, he’s also an “all of the above” guy, who has supported renewable energy sources as well.

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia talks with Regina Ison, left, and Lori Ramey, both of Kentucky, before he spoke at a rally for American coal jobs held by the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security on Sept. 15, 2010. Credit: Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia talks with Regina Ison, left, and Lori Ramey, both of Kentucky, before he spoke at a rally for American coal jobs held by the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security on Sept. 15, 2010. Credit: Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images

He signed a letter in 2016 opposing Obama’s Clean Power Plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power plants—the only Democrat to join with the 33 Republican senators and 171 Republican members of the house who fought the plan.

In 2017, he applauded President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. 

And in recent years, he’s been a major supporter of the Trump administration’s efforts to promote a petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub in the Upper Ohio River Valley, one that has not materialized.

But Manchin also helped negotiate major energy and pandemic relief legislation in December with a number of clean energy provisions. And when he was governor, he was behind state legislation, which was later repealed, designed to encourage renewable energy and fossil fuels with reduced carbon emissions.

He also welcomed a major wind energy development into his state in the late 2000s, said Frank Maisano, senior principal at Bracewell, which represents electric utilities, natural gas and other energy industry clients. 

“He wanted economic development and he wanted clean energy,” Maisano said.

Now, Maisano said, “he is in a place where he is basically a king maker. I do think he will be a force to be reckoned with. He will make the policy better. He will not go ham-handed into a crazy Green New Deal.”

Coal has slumped across the nation and in West Virginia, replaced by cheaper natural gas and renewable forms of energy like wind and solar that have yet to fully offset the lost jobs and economic devastation.

Now the oil and gas industry is also tanking, and at least two proposed plastics manufacturing plants in Appalachia and a regional storage hub never got off the ground.

Those trends have left Manchin well suited to broker a climate deal, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

“He understands better than most, the dynamics that play out when the coal industry or other industries begin to falter, and what happens to communities and workers in those communities, and that is what we care about the most.”

Somebody You Can Work With’

Many environmental advocates may harbor concerns about Manchin, but some who have followed him closely said his potential contributions to climate policy should not be counted out. He just needs to find the right deal.

“He likes pipelines,” acknowledged Thom Kay, the legislative director with the Appalachian Voices, an environmental group working to create a new economy in the region. “It wasn’t long ago, he was voting against the stream protection rule,” an Obama-era regulation that sought to reduce mining impacts on waterways.

But he’s not the same politician on climate issues as he was a decade ago, when he made the ad where he shot the cap-and-trade bill, Kay said. 

“He is considerably better on climate change than some people might suspect.”

Sen. Manchin “has come a long way in recent years,” said Chuck Keeney, who teaches history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. “He came out against mountaintop removal mining, which he had been supportive of, and he’s been embracing a more slightly climate friendly model.”

Keeney, who is the author of the new book, “The Road to Blair Mountain,” about an effort to preserve the mining site of the largest labor uprising in American history, was involved in an effort to stop strip mining at that site.  He described Manchin as “a pragmatist, above all else. Not ideologically driven. He is somebody you can work with.

“But at the same time,” he said, any climate action that he supports will need to be “something he can sell to his constituents.”

To secure a transition away from fossil fuels, the country will need to create better economic alternatives in regions where fossil fuel industries have played a dominant role, Keeney said.

One blueprint is available for Manchin to consider—the National Economic Transition Platform. In it, 80 local, regional and national organizations, including Appalachian Voices, aim to support struggling coal mining cities and towns, some facing severe poverty, in Appalachia, the Illinois Basin, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and elsewhere. It calls for investing in local leadership to lead the transition—especially Black, brown, women and indigenous-led organizations. The plan stresses support for small businesses and payments for workers while transitioning to family-sustaining jobs. 

It also envisions reclamation and reuse of coal sites and new community infrastructure, including public health facilities and schools.

An Ongoing Evolution On Climate

In the Senate, Manchin is friends with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democrat from Rhode Island, who is a climate hawk. Manchin’s acceptance of climate change may be part due to that relationship, Kay said.

Whitehouse occasionally takes his climate message on the road and the two senators have been to each other’s states. Six years ago they went back and forth, cordially, on climate and energy policy on the floor of the Senate.

“We are determined to see if we can find common ground and move forward,” Manchin said at the time.

Whitehouse said then that “we must address climate change in a way that protects jobs in all sectors and ensures grid stability,” two of Manchin’s concerns.

In December, Manchin and Sen. Murkowski penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, asserting that there was “no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it,” and that they were looking for a middle ground in confronting it. Much of their piece focused on the need to find technological solutions to climate change.

Last week, Whitehouse, in a written statement, expressed hope and support for climate action that could be achieved by working with Manchin.

“Senator Manchin understands the threats posed by climate change and is an important voice as our newly Democratic Senate springs into action on climate,” Whitehouse said. “Under his leadership, there is a strong path forward to a clean energy economy that protects consumers, creates jobs, helps his constituents and saves our planet.”

If nothing else, Manchin is going to be getting an earful from all sides of the climate debate.

“Joe is going to be a very popular guy,” said Charlie Burd, executive director of the Gas and Oil Association of WV, a West Virginia industry group. “There will be a lot of people who are going to want to see him.”