The rise of Joe Manchin as a key power player for Democratic policymaking in 2021 is the result of a perfect storm for the US senator from West Virginia.
His position as the Senate’s most conservative Democrat means he often has final say in what his party is able to push through, especially when it comes to Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda on infrastructure, far-reaching social policies and a powerful attempt to tackle the climate crisis.
A drive through West Virginia’s countryside – which is still enthusiastically Donald Trump country – reveals a patchwork of communities battered by the climate crisis and barely held together by deteriorating infrastructure. Yet Manchin – balking at a $3.5tn price tag of Biden’s reconciliation bill – is busy trying to strip out many of the policies that would try to tackle these crises that are so seriously affecting many of his fellow West Virginians.
West Virginia, a landlocked state, leads the nation in the number of the infrastructure facilities – hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, power stations – located on land prone to severe flooding. It even beats out Louisiana and Florida. Of course, the climate crisis is seeing flood events hit record levels across the US.
Beyond the inspiration for John Denver’s hit song, West Virginia’s country roads are actually a source of fear and frustration for residents. Nearly half of the roads in the state are routinely battered by severe flooding.
When power outages – some of the longest and most frequent in the nation – hit the state, they are often lethal, a reality made clear when a single flood event in 2016 took out power for over half of the state’s homes and killed 23 people in 12 hours.
Earlier this year, tens of thousands of people were left without power for more than two weeks in freezing temperatures when ice storms felled trees on to power lines across the state and closed roads.
But, for many West Virginians the reality of flooding and infrastructure failure are more insidious than isolated events.
For Jill Hess, it’s trying to make it back to Fairmont, her home town and the birthplace of Joe Manchin, every time there’s talk of a storm. For the past five years, Hess made it a priority to see to it that her mother, Sue Hess, who was surviving on oxygen concentrators, wasn’t stranded powerless and alone.
“Every time it would rain or snow she would really go into panic mode.”
Jill said that growing up, outages weren’t frequent. But as her mother grew older and weaker, so has the power grid.
Despite spending over a billion dollars trying to prevent the grid from failing, the frequency and duration of outages have steadily increased as the temperature of the Earth has risen, causing places like West Virginia to experience increased storm activity.
“I can’t tell you how many times she would say, ‘I need you to be ready and available if anything happens because we have a severe thunderstorm warning coming through.'”
Jill would hop in her car to drive towards her mother, dependent on oxygen machines, in Fairmont. But with storms in West Virginia come road closures, shutting down the most direct route to any given place. Adding 15 minutes to be rerouted around a mountain felt like 15 hours to Jill knowing her mother was running out of oxygen.
For Jill, there’s a cruel irony to how her mother spent her final years. Sue had been a home health nurse, traveling across the county to help people who couldn’t make it to hospital. In 1968, she traveled to nearby Farmington, the 375-person town, to take care of wounded survivors of the Farmington mine disaster. In the floods of 1985 that killed 38 people across the state, Sue had gone from house to house helping provide medical assistance and supplies to families whose livelihoods had been devastated by flooding.
Now, despite having retired in a nice home less than a mile away from the same hospital at which she had completed her nursing program, Sue found herself helpless. She relied on a combination of asking her daughter to drive in and calling 911 for ambulance rides to take to her somewhere she could breathe.
Before she died, Sue racked up a four-figure ambulance bill nearly every time the power went out.
“They would just literally park her in the waiting room of the ER, on oxygen until it was clear that the power came on.” The average power outage in the state lasts for 11.4 hours – the second highest in the nation.
The five years of needless suffering her mother was put through before she died in December comes down to infrastructure for Jill. What she finds especially frustrating is that Manchin isn’t detached from this reality – it’s the one he grew up in. Before he was a politician, the Hess family used to get Christmas cards from the Manchins.
Jill has no doubt that Manchin knows exactly how hard climate change is making life for the people he grew up around.
National news outlets have been quick to connect the financial dots on Manchin. Clean energy initiatives could affect his bottom line in multiple ways because that bottom line is joined at the hip to one of the biggest drivers of climate change in the world: the fossil fuel industry.
Put simply, the US senator is blocking legislation that would demand better of the dirty energy companies that make up his investment portfolio and his 2022 election cycle contributors list. And, he’s doing so to the environmental, social and economic detriment of his state.
According to a report by the West Virginia Climate Alliance, efforts at addressing climate change such as the Green New Deal, which Manchin has opposed, would create 10m jobs across the nation and introduce regulations that could clean West Virginia’s notoriously polluted waterways – a byproduct of the state’s reliance on coal.
Manchin’s own coal company, which he formed before assuming public office, has earned him $5.2m in dividends over the past 10 years. Manchin also has received more money from oil and gas companies than any other senator in next year’s election.
As Manchin has gotten richer, his state has gotten warmer. The decrease in cold snaps through the year could, according to the Climate Alliance report, bring about a proliferation of invasive plant species and a significant increase in ticks which transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
But, putting personal profits over his own party and its environmental initiatives is hardly new for Manchin. In fact, it’s a fundamental part of the story behind his rise to power.
Before he was the single greatest source of frustration for Democrats in America, he showed West Virginia he would rather work with Republicans against his own party than support anything that resembled environmentalism.
In 1996, Charlotte Pritt beat Manchin in the Democratic primary for governor – the only person, to this day, to hand him a defeat in an election. But Pritt ran as an environmentalist, urging West Virginia to develop industries that weren’t centered on polluting the earth and creating deplorable working conditions.
Shortly after losing to Pritt, Manchin sent 900 letters to top Democrats around the state saying he wouldn’t support Pritt because she wasn’t “interested in the concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats”. Instead, Manchin’s letter added he would be supporting the Republican candidate, Cecil Underwood. Underwood won.
But, two decades later, economists and climate scientists have sided with Pritt, not Manchin, on what’s best for the state.
A 2019 report from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy emphasized the dangers of the state continuing to depend on its “rich non-renewable depleting natural resources”, because it made terrible financial sense. Failures to diversify the economy, the author wrote, only perpetuates the boom and bust economies that have plagued the state and put it on a “collision course with efforts to combat climate change.”
Nicolas Zegre, a hydrologist at West Virginia University, agrees that there is a false dichotomy where economic progress is wrongly pitted against combating climate change. Zegre, who researches flood risk vulnerability in West Virginia, said in fact it’s the opposite: the state and its already struggling economy can’t afford to continue to be battered by climate change.
“What are our elected representatives doing to protect West Virginians? The answer is very little.”
For Zegre, the way forward for Manchin and anyone claiming to represent the interest of West Virginians is to invest in a sustainable and clean version of what this state could be, adding “none of that is going to happen until our decision makers, first of all, acknowledge that climate change is happening”.
One example of how Zegre sees the state positioning itself for both economic diversification and a shift towards alleviating climate change is by cleaning up its waterways – 70% of which are too dirty to “support natural biological function”.
A shift towards clean water, according to Zegre, would create a pathway for West Virginia to provision even more water than it does for surrounding states, a practice that’s only going to increase in value as climate change causes unprecedented droughts.
Zegre urges West Virginia’s politicians, especially Manchin, to realize how vulnerable their state is to the reality of climate change.
“We have so much opportunity, yet many of our leaders look backwards for a model of what the future should be.”