You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Will Joe Manchin Ruin Democrats’ Best Chance to Fight Climate Change?

The West Virginian senator has a mixed record. The key to getting his support for ambitious environmental policy lies with his constituents.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin gestures outside the Senate chamber.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin gestures outside the Senate chamber.

There’s been a bit of common wisdom circling among green groups in Washington. If Biden gets elected and Democrats take back the Senate—both, granted, big ifs—then any climate legislation they might hope to pass will have to squeeze by conservative Senate Democrats. Green groups worry about one in particular: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. 

The concern is that Manchin—hailing from a state where the economy has historically revolved around coal—will be unwilling to pass any big package to deal with global warming that might endanger that industry. After all, he ran a remarkable campaign ad in 2010 in which he appeared to shoot the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill with a semiautomatic rifle. 

But there’s an interesting twist in this narrative. While Manchin could indeed be the legislative barrier activists worry about, this would leave him out of sync with his constituents. Whatever Manchin’s own politics, West Virginians aren’t as right-wing as many assume.

After statewide teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019, unionized educators in West Virginia now have a higher approval rating than any statewide officeholder and Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders won the state by a landslide in the 2016 Democratic primary. And though Trump then won the state that November—and likely will next month, as well—polling in 2017 found that West Virginia voters preferred Sanders to Trump in a head-to-head matchup and had a higher opinion of Sanders than either Trump or Manchin. 

Democrats controlled the legislature from the 1930s through 2014 and controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion from 1992 to 1996, and again from 2001 through 2014. Independents now account for 23 percent of all registered voters in West Virginia, and third parties have grown enormously in the last 20 years; most of the voters that have left the Democratic Party in the last 20 years have become independents—not Republicans. While West Virginia is nationally considered a solid red state, like much of the South, registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans there, thanks in large part to the legacy of the once highly unionized coal industry.

The state, some people emphasize, isn’t right-wing so much as jaded. “It’s not surprising that people got disenchanted with the Democratic Party over that time,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst and the Democratic candidate running to unseat Republican Alex Mooney in West Virginia’s 2nd congressional district. “The Republican Party has not done anything to help people’s economic situation either. West Virginia is more of an anti-establishment state than a deeply red state.” 

Much of that stems from the state’s history of coal mining. From the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 to the Mine Wars in the 1970s, West Virginia’s coal mines were home to some of the country’s most militant, multiracial labor struggles in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Black miners who had migrated from the deep South, white Appalachians, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants stood together on United Mineworkers of America picket lines. UMWA President John L. Lewis was for a time among the country’s most influential labor leaders and pushed the New Deal to the left, though he was considerably to the right of many of the socialist and Communist organizers who organized in the mines; for years, pockets of West Virginia were red in a socialist rather than a Republican sense. Mechanization and strip mining—using explosives to exploit coal seams closer to the surface—proved a lucrative way to shed workers, as it required fewer of them, and an aid to coal barons trying to break unions. Black miners were hit hardest by changes in the production process, having traditionally been given the most dangerous and least skilled jobs. As jobs disappeared, many Black miners moved further north to find work in industrial cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland. “The decline of union jobs is the number one reason for West Virginia’s drop in terms of going from a blue to a red state,” said Ted Boettner, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute. “If rural areas don’t have unionization, people of color, or highly educated people, they tend to be very red.”

Despite Donald Trump’s promises to bring them back, coal jobs have continued to decline sharply throughout his administration: There are at least 6,400 fewer coal miners nationwide than when he took office. Job losses and mine closures in coal are happening faster than at any point since the Eisenhower administration. Demand for coal power is expected to fall an additional 20 percent by the end of the year, with more energy now generated from renewables than coal for the first time ever. West Virginians have little to show for all the wealth that’s flowed out of their state the last century and a half, outside of toxic water and a tax base under increasing strain. On strike in 2018, teachers chanted about raising taxes on fossil fuels to fund public education and public employee health insurance. 

Some candidates see an opening for creative approaches. “A lot of people across the political spectrum recognize that West Virginia has been taken advantage of for decades,” Kunkel said. That’s even more true now that companies are using bankruptcy to walk away from pension and health care obligations, as well as those to remediate the land they’ve mined. “Increasingly there’s a resignation that the coal industry is not coming back to what it was and we need to be doing something different here, and diversify our economy.” Kunkel is running on a New Deal for West Virginia focused on bringing in federal money to create jobs and repair crumbling infrastructure to help diversify an economy where many people still lack access to clean water and broadband. She’s one of several candidates up and down the ballot endorsed by West Virginia Can’t Wait, its vision born out of nearly 200 town halls and volunteer conversations with some 11,000 West Virginians.  

Policies that provide good jobs as the country moves off fossil fuels could be particularly popular. They can also help prevent backlash as transitions continue in the sector—whether due to climate legislation or not. “If you don’t do a big New Deal–type investment in Appalachia’s infrastructure—repairing all the damage of the last 150 years—people are not going to see the impact of it, and things will get worse. It’s sort of like liberals bringing a knife to a gun fight,” Boettner says. 

Shale gas had been seen as West Virginia’s next great hope for the state as coal declined. But it hasn’t panned out that way. Its growth in the last decade has raised gross domestic product in Appalachia but hasn’t led to widespread prosperity. A recent report Boettner wrote found that the labor share generated by the Ohio River Valley’s oil and gas industry—the amount paid out in wages, salaries, and benefits—is between 7 and 19 percent, compared to the average of 50 percent across industries in the region. From 2008 through 2017—as the shale boom took off—jobs in drilling actually declined throughout West Virginia. The most reliable jobs were in construction and pipelines, though 40 percent of that workforce came from out of state, another report by Sean O’Leary, Boettner, and Kunkel—then working for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis—found. In Belmont County, Ohio, on the West Virginia border, a takeoff in fracking saw GDP grow 150 percent between 2013 and 2018. Compensation for all workers grew by just 12 percent over the same period.

As national conversations on climate policy shift toward more ambitious decarbonization timelines, they still often avoid questions about what to do about incumbent fuels. The assumption, often, is that providing enough support to clean energy will allow it to outcompete fossil fuels in a free market, never mind that nothing like a free market exists in energy. Avoiding the conversation about how to phase out fossil fuels, however, also means avoiding questions of how to support the workers and communities that have historically depended on them. 

A narrow climate bill that avoids building out robust safety net programs might manage to choke out coal, oil, and gas at some point, but could also see Democrats and climate policy get blamed for changes that have already been taking place for over a decade. A broader bill, perhaps counterintuitively, could bring West Virginians on board. 

As for Joe Manchin, his general wariness of big government could come back to bite his constituents if he becomes the reason climate legislation gets watered down. In recent years, he’s supported some legislative efforts that would help former mining communities—like the Mineworkers Protection Act and the RECLAIM Act to convert $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands fees into economic development grants for Appalachia. And if he’s reading the tea leaves, he might just sign on to a climate bill that incorporates those sorts of initiatives. “I’m betting that he will want to leave behind some type of legacy for his leadership work in West Virginia,” Boettner said. “Hopefully, climate change can be a part of that.”