As the first full week of this year’s legislative session comes to an end, it’s more clear than ever that there’s little room up at our statehouse for facts. If you listened to the debate on the House floor yesterday as delegates took turns standing up for coal, you know what I’m talking about.
It was hard not to wonder if as many lawmakers will still be so concerned about coal miners when it comes time to vote on whether to give the industry immunity to many workplace injury and death lawsuits.
But seriously, the longer I watch West Virginia politics — especially politics surrounding coal and energy — the more that each debate over each issue seems to become more and more deprived of facts or data, let alone reasoned analysis of those facts and data.
The facts about the terribly minor, really negligible, impacts of then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s “Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard Act” were made clear in a Gazette story we published on Thursday:
… State records show that the 2009 law actually does little to hurt the coal industry and maybe even less to really promote alternatives like wind energy or solar power. West Virginia’s coal-heavy utilities say they have been — and will continue to be — able to meet the law without adding new renewable generation.
This story was based on annual reports that West Virginia’s two largest utilities filed with the state Public Service Commission (see here and here), and with an annual analysis that the PSC itself performed (see here). No one has really produced any facts or data or evidence of any kind that disputes this information. None.
It’s not surprising that career political consultants tried to use passage of this do-nothing “alternative” energy bill tried to re-label it as “cap and trade” so they could use it against now-Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (see here and here). And you have to hand it to the Republicans — they campaigned against this bill, and in repealing it, they’re doing what they said that they would.
But the West Virginia Democrats didn’t really do much better. The best legislative move they could come up with was to seek a study of the jobs impact of the energy bill and its repeal. They must have forgotten that their own 2009 bill already included a requirement for the PSC do perform such a study every year.
I heard Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, arguing that the law was a “baby step” toward West Virginia recognizing climate change and helping to diversify its own energy portfolio. That’s one way of looking at it. But that works only if there is any serious effort to go back and improve on that baby step. The other way of looking at a law like this is that it allows some politicians to effectively create the illusion of progress where there really is none. That’s what Sen. Manchin seemed to be doing in this pretty remarkable defense of his energy bill:
I am deeply disappointed that the Republicans in West Virginia legislature have decided to play partisan politics with our state’s energy and utility rates by attempting to repeal the bipartisan Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio law. When I was governor, we brought together industry, coal miners, and environmental leaders and passed this commonsense law that encourages utilities to use all of West Virginia’s energy resources, from building more efficient coal power plants and upgrading old plants, to investing in renewable energy.
Our law showed the country that coal could continue to lead our nation toward energy independence, while also reducing emissions. Coal will be a part of our nation’s energy portfolio for the next several decades, and West Virginia must lead the way in showing other states how to produce and burn coal more efficiently and cleanly. This law struck a balance between our economy and our environment, and has reduced utility rates for middle class West Virginians, something all of our elected officials should be focused on. If the Republicans now believe that this law harmed the coal industry and increased rates, I would expect that their legislation will have a mandatory reduction of utility rates of more than ten percent for all West Virginians.
Since its passage, the Alterative and Renewable Energy Portfolio law has aimed to protect our environmental interests while focusing on job growth, bringing in new businesses, and upholding West Virginia’s technological advantage by incentivizing the use of state-of-the-art energy systems. The utilities have successfully met the 2015 goals and do not anticipate any issues with meeting the 2020 and 2025 goals. West Virginia was the only state that showed, if we take advantage of clean energy technologies, we can reduce emissions while still utilizing coal. It is my belief that West Virginia’s energy policies can be used as a template for future national energy policies to strike that balance between environmental concerns and America’s energy needs.
I had always hoped and believed that the corrosive political atmosphere that has been so destructive in Washington would not make its way to our great state – this attempt by Republicans proves that the worst of Washington political gamesmanship has made its way to West Virginia.
It’s kind of like how the West Virginia Democrats have a new-found interest in worker safety when faced with a GOP majority that can weaken the state’s “deliberate intent” lawsuit standard, but couldn’t being themselves to pass real mine-safety reforms following our state’s worst coal-mining disaster in a generation. How can the Democrats spend most of their time beating up President Obama, the EPA, and government regulations — sounding just like the Republicans — and then expect to turn themselves and voters on a dime?
What’s happened in this particular instance, with the energy bill, is that the Democrats passed a do-nothing bill, then beat on their chests about how great they were for doing so. And now the Republicans are repealing a do-nothing bill. When that’s done, they can beat their own chests for a while. The rest of us — and especially a generation of West Virginians continue to be given the false hope that another coal boom is just around the corner, as soon as we get rid of Obama and the nasty old EPA.
How can both parties get away with this?
Well, part of the blame for that lies with the media in our state. It’s hard to defend our performance on this issue.
The Daily Mail was calling the energy law “cap and trade” (without the quotes). Just yesterday, West Virginia MetroNews said that the 2009 law “requires electric utilities use an increasing amount of energy sources other than coal over the next few decades,” something that’s just not true. Some in the media seem to think if they call the energy law a “so-called cap and trade bill” that they’ve adequately suggested it might not be that at all.
In a commentary, Hoppy Kercheval wrote that the 2009 law “does cap the percentage of coal generated energy.” It actually doesn’t. Hoppy would have known that had he read the definition of “alternative energy” in the law, and realized that it includes most of the state’s advanced coal-fired power plants. In fairness, though, the Gazette didn’t necessarily perform very well either. Several of our stories (see here and here) included the misleading and incomplete statement that the law “would require power companies in the state to use fuels other than coal for a portion of their electricity production a decade from now.” One WVU expert on these issues, law professor James Van Nostrand (see here and here) tried to testify to the Legislature about the energy law. His comments didn’t really make it into much of the statehouse coverage.
If this week is any indication, it’s going to be a long session …