Just Let Little West Virginia Mine Its Coal!

The way to get West Virginia’s U.S. Senator Joe Manchin on board with President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan is to make him an offer he can’t refuse. I’m not talking about cutting off a horse’s head and putting it in his bed; it’s not clear that that would bother him. I’m talking about giving West Virginia exactly what it says it wants — the resurrection of its coal mining industry for as long as the coal lasts — in exchange for his support.

Fate has put Manchin in a position where he’s one of two Senators who can block the signature achievement of the Biden Administration, not only making global devastation by climate change significantly more likely but also making it more likely that we see a Trump (or Trumpesque) resurgence in 2024. We can’t shame him into action; we can’t wish that reality away. It’s time to stop screwing around.

A coal mine like this is a great place to store mined coal, huh? (Or, it not, we’ll find somewhere else.)

Here’s my plan: if he acts fast, West Virginia gets an exemption from every federal regulation related to mining coal. They can dig as much as they want. They can blow off mountaintops if they want to. They can give tens of thousands of willing miners black lung disease. Hopefully, they use this opportunity as a chance to transition to a non-carbon economy — but if they don’t, then that’s their business.

Can Manchin say no to that? If he brought home this deal, he’d apparently be a state hero. Another full generation of mining! W00t <*cough*> W00t!

There are two catches: first, Manchin has to agree to vote for the plan at a much higher figure, and with much less carping about creating an “entitlement society,” than he’d like. All that negotiating down the price tag goes away.

Second, West Virginia can only sell that coal to the United States government — possibly at whatever market price exists, but better at a fixed price. West Virginia is, thus, “made whole.”

But doesn’t that mean no reduction in roasting the globe? No! Once we own it, it’s ours to do with as we wish — and we don’t have to burn it! Part of the deal should be that the federal government will sit on all of that mined coal, in what I’ll call a “Strategic Coal Reserve” — for at least 10 years, with a supermajority of both houses of Congress required for any of it to be released. (Possibly, we could arrange for small amounts to be released for emergency and foreign aid use — but not much per year.) Some day, when it’s safe, it may get burned — but probably slowly, over time.

Is this what I want? No. But it’s what I’ll settle for!

West Virginia coal production rose to 93 million short tons in 2019, down to about 60 million in 2020. Its reserves are estimated as about 1,567 million short tons. Let’s assume that, in the future, it will be able to produce around 78 million short tons per year. That gives it 20 years remaining of coal production.

That coal currently sells for about $61 per short ton. Let’s say that the government would maintain that price. (Manchin would like for it to go up over time, while I’d like it to go down, so this is a compromise.) Than means that the coal reserves of West Virginia are currently worth about $95,587,000,000. That’s $95.6 billion — a small fraction of the multitrillion dollar price tag of the BBB bill before Manchin whittled it down. So put an extra $100 billion into the bill, to pay for the Strategic Coal Reserve. Where will the Strategic Coal Reserve be? In West Virginia, of course — where coal will be loaded into sacks or boxes or whatever works, and loaded into already spent coal mines, ready to be snatched up when (and if) we’re ready. It will await either new technologies that allow greater carbon capture, or potentially released when reductions in global warming allow for it to happen without too many untoward effects. It won’t need to be mined, however — just loaded up, hauled up, and sent on its way via electric trains.

Now is it fair that West Virginia is the only state that will benefit from this plan? No, it is not fair! Wyoming digs more coal, for example. But, you know what? TOUGH! Fate has put West Virginia’s Senator in the position of having to be bought off — and not Wyoming’s Senators, who are both opposed no matter what. So, Wyoming: “YOU … GET … NOTHING!” Some future Republican government may make the same deal for you, and that might be fine. But not now.

The good thing about this proposal is that it respects the West Virginian self-perceived ethos that you work hard for your money rather than taking handouts. OK — doesn’t matter whether I agree, we’ll just respect their belief and make them work for it! But we will control when that coal is actually burned — and that’s what matters.

Here’s the beautiful thing about this — and why I’m not going on to figure out how to buy off Sen. Kyrsten “Carmelita Spats” Sinema (at least not here and now.) This may be such a good deal for West Virginia that not only Joe Manchin can’t say no to it — but West Virginia’s Republican U.S. Senator Shelly Moore Capito might not to be able to say no to it either! In that case, Sen. Sinema loses all of her leverage — and we can include negotiating for prescription drug prices in the bill after all. Democrats will still need her for things like judicial appointments, so they’ll try to kiss and make up — but she wouldn’t be needed for this.

Frankly, West Virginia has always needed propping up by the federal government — former U.S. Senator Robert F. Byrd was literally considered to be it’s greatest industry for years while he was in Congress, based on dollars brought into the state, so let’s not quibble about how the sausage is being made. Getting Manchin to take this deal would be — sing it with me! — “Almost Heaven….” And if Manchin doesn’t take this deal now, it will never be available again!

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)