The package, passed without any Republican votes, can largely be read as an attempt to help West Virginia look to the future without completely tearing it away from its roots.
The bill includes billions of incentives for clean energy – while also offering renewed support for conventional fuel sources such as coal and natural gas, as well as major boosts for national parks and coal for low-income people and those with black lung disease. Health care for miners. This is no accident. Most of the provisions were included because Democrats had to pay to win the all-important support of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who he says will help people back home.
It’s about time, says John Palmer, 67, a retired coal miner from Monongah.
“We had a lot of people who didn’t care for us,” Palmer said. “We’re always fighting for different things. Everyone has an agenda, and our agenda was for the working class people. That should be everyone’s agenda, but it isn’t.”
Manchin, a conservative Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had a 50-50 Senate vote needed to pass the spending package and send it to the House, where lawmakers expect to take it Friday. Is.
The bill envisions nearly $375 billion to fight climate change, caps prescription drug costs by $2,000 for Medicare recipients and for health insurance by expanding subsidies provided during the coronavirus pandemic to an estimated 13 million Americans. Helps to make payment.
If those subsidies are not expanded, according to the Urban Institute, West Virginia is among the states that will lose the most support for people who pay for health insurance, meaning thousands could lose coverage. .
Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said a provision in the bill to keep insulin prices at $35 per dose for seniors would make a big impact in the state, which has the largest number of people living with diabetes. per capita in the country.
“There are people who ration insulin, or who have to decide between getting groceries and paying the cost of the drug, or paying the rent and paying the cost of the drug,” she said.
But Manchin, who received more campaign contributions this election cycle from natural gas pipeline companies than any other lawmaker, won concessions on the climate front. The bill includes funding to promote fossil fuels, along with steps such as incentives for alternative energy and subsidies for technology that reduce carbon emissions. It also requires the government to open up more federal land and waters for oil drilling.
In a statement, Manchin said he worked with colleagues to devise the “most effective way” to help West Virginia. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Munchkin also proposed a separate list of legislation to expedite federal permitting and make energy projects harder to block under federal enactments. As part of an agreement with Democratic leadership, he specifically called for federal agencies to “take all necessary action” to streamline the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that has long been advocated by environmental activists. was opposed by.
The 303-mile (487-kilometre) pipeline, which is mostly finished, will transport drilled natural gas from the Appalachian Basin through West Virginia and Virginia. The legal battle has been delayed by nearly four years and doubled the cost of the pipeline, which is now estimated at $6.6 billion.
Chelsea Barnes, the legislative director of Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization suing to stop the pipeline, said the legislation has a lot to be excited about. But he considered Munchkin’s concessions to the fossil fuel industry “unacceptable.”
“We’d really just love to celebrate,” Barnes said, “but we know there’s a lot in the bill that’s going to hurt communities.”
Barnes said the bill contains many of the provisions his organization has long wanted, such as increasing and increasing tax credits for clean energy projects, along with bonus credits for low-income communities and communities where coal mines. Or the power plant has shut down.
That means there’s going to be a high incentive for clean energy developers to set up shop in Appalachia. He said the people he has worked with on clean energy projects are not excited about the disappearance of coal jobs, but are excited to be part of the “energy economy of the future.”
“They like the idea of maintaining that energy-generating legacy, and I take great pride in continuing to play that role in our society, in our culture,” she said.
Still, she is concerned about the bill’s support for carbon sequestration and storage projects, saying they are not cost-effective compared to clean energy alternatives. He fears that might prolong the life of the power plants.
He also said that allowing reforms in the bill is “allowing destruction” that would harm the environmental review process and silence residents’ voices.
The bill also includes millions of dollars for tourism, which has long been seen in West Virginia as a way to boost the state’s beleaguered economy. West Virginia is home to several national park sites, including the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, which opened in 2020.
The national park system will receive at least $1 billion in packages to help hire new staff and carry out projects to conserve and protect wilderness areas.
The bill permanently increases the excise tax on coal, paying monthly benefits for coal miners with black lung disease caused by coal dust.
Since the program’s inception, more retired miners in West Virginia have received black lung benefits than any other state, with 4,423 receiving benefits last year. But this fund is a debt of $6 billion.
For decades, the tax has required annual legislative approval. Twice in recent years, federal lawmakers have failed to extend the tax, most recently to this year. It cut the tax by more than half — a windfall for coal companies that jeopardized profits.
United Mine Workers of America’s chief of staff Phil Smith said the fund is needed more than ever, with miners being diagnosed with black lung at a younger age than previously thought due to the high concentration of silica dust in the mines. which is not regulated.
Palmer worked underground for 40 years at the Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County, which went bankrupt and closed shortly after retiring a few years earlier. His father, a coal miner, died of a lung disease, and his younger brother also has black lung. He said knowing that there would be money would be a “relief” and that miners make a profit — an average of $700 a month — when they risk doing dangerous jobs.
“We went down into these holes, which kept the lights on for everyone,” he said. “We are sacrificing our bodies.”