Climate Corner: Hey, Joe — do the right thing

Dec 18, 2021

Giulia Mannarino

On Nov. 19, the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better bill, Biden’s social safety net and climate legislation. This bill includes investments to assist working people and the middle class as well as the care economy; the elderly, disabled, college students and children. It also includes a national strategy to address climate change. It addresses this real and urgent challenge in a way that creates jobs, strengthens the economy, and invests in a healthier, more equitable, more promising future. And the costs will be fully paid by making sure the very wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes. After passage by the House, this bill moved on to the 50-50 Senate where it has been stalled by Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin used his power as the potentially decisive vote in the Senate to reduce BBB to $1.75 trillion. He also insisted on removing the “clean electricity plan,” which provided powerful incentives to help utility companies switch to renewable energy sources like the wind and sun. And even more cuts may come. Manchin has also objected to a measure in the bill designed to reduce emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas as well as a tax credit for electric cars. When pressed by reporters about whether he has a conflict of interest because his son runs the family coal company, Manchin told them “I have been in a blind trust for 20 years. I have no idea what they’re doing. You got a problem?”

A reporter for the Washington Post did have a problem with Manchin’s irritated response and the result was an article published by the Post on Dec. 13, which provided much of the information for this column. Don Fox, a former general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, was asked to examine Manchin’s required annual financial disclosure report for 2020, which was filed in May. Fox states that Manchin’s dismissal of questions about his coal interests because they are in a blind trust is “misleading and at worst it’s just not true.” Manchin’s report shows, on Page 22, that the family coal company, Enersystems, paid him $492,000 in interest, dividends and other income and that his share of the firm is worth between $1 million and $5 million. And, the Joseph Manchin III Qualified Blind Trust shows, on Page 6, earnings of no more than $15,000 last year and is worth between $500,000 and $1 million. According to the article, because Manchin’s coal interests are not in a blind trust, it does call into question his impartiality as Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A Qualified Blind Trust is a financial arrangement in which a person in public office gives the administration of their private business interests to an independent trust in order to prevent any conflict of interest the investments could create. This differs from a traditional trust in which the owner can be both trustor and trustee. A trustee alone (Huntington Bank in Manchin’s case) manages or invests the assets in a QBT with no communication between the parties. Neither the owner or his/her beneficiaries are to have knowledge of the holdings of the trust and no right to intervene in their handling. This creates a layer of separation between politicians’ personal financial interests and their official political activities and helps eliminate real or perceived conflicts of interest. Also, each year Congressional elected officials sign and swear that the public financial disclosure record filed is true and correct. This record specifically lists all property and assets except those held in a QBT. Only totals are given in disclosure records for those funds since, by design, it’s not possible to know precisely what is in a blind trust.

According to the news article, Manchin helped found and became president of Enersystems, a private coal brokerage firm based in Fairmont, in 1988. After Manchin was elected Secretary of State in 2000, he turned control of Enersystems to his son, Joseph Manchin IV, who still runs it. Enersystems benefits from federal programs to clean up closed coal mines where mining debris, waste-coal has been piled and abandoned. The waste-coal is sold to the Grant Town Power Plant, an electricity generating facility in Marion County. It is the only publicly recorded buyer of Enersystems’ waste coal, or what the industry calls “gob.” Only a handful of gob burning plants still operate nationally as these power plants are dirtier and don’t generate as much electricity. In fact, according to EPA’s most recent data, the Grant Town Power Plant emits more greenhouse gas emissions into the air per megawatt-hour of electricity produced than any other power plant in West Virginia. The Grant Town plant has come close to shutting down at least twice. In 2006, the plant was rescued by the state’s Public Service Commission approval of temporary rate increases which were passed on to customers. Although higher rates were to end in 2017, they were made permanent in 2015 when the plant’s owners came before the Commission once again. According to James Van Norstrand, director of WVU’s law school’s Center for Energy and Sustaninable Development, if the “clean electricity program” had been kept in the BBB plan, the Grant Town plant most likely would eventually have closed.

Although many top executive branch officials are required to divest assets to avoid potential industry conflict, members of Congress are not. It’s legal for Manchin to make millions from his coal interests even as he legislates on matters affecting the fossil fuel industry. Putting personal coal profits before the future of the planet and our grandchildren is certainly not the right thing to do.

Still BBB is the most consequential climate agenda in our country’s history. It needs to be passed as soon as possible and without more deletions. Take a look at the WV Citizen’s Action Group’s “Hey, Joe” Youtube video, a parody of the Beatles “Hey Jude,” filmed all across West Virginia. Then call or email Manchin every day and tell him “Hey, Joe. Do the right thing!”


Giulia Mannarino, of Belleville, is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.