Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in a split Senate, is signaling that he’ll be a check on liberal climate change policies such as a mandate for carbon-free electricity.
“You cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner environment. You can innovate your way. That is the difference in some people’s aspirational goals,” Manchin told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
Manchin, who represents the coal state of West Virginia, is perhaps the most powerful man in Washington, where the Democrats control the Senate but only by the thread of a tiebreak vote from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Manchin’s control over climate change policy is especially significant because he is set to be the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he was the top-ranked Democrat last Congress.
President-elect Joe Biden, in response to pressure from liberals, proposed the most aggressive agenda ever to combat climate change.
Biden promised to eliminate greenhouse gases from the power grid by 2035 and from the overall economy by 2050 and to spend $2 trillion over four years to do it.
Manchin would not rule out supporting specific policies to reach those goals, but he appeared skeptical of an idea championed by progressives to impose a clean electricity standard that would mandate utilities to use only electricity that emits no carbon, such as wind and solar or nuclear, within 15 years.
“The market will take you there,” Manchin said. “We have moved the date farther ahead than we ever thought we would have, and we have done it without total mandates.”
Manchin added, “I will look and see what they are doing. Anything we pass sure as heck should be feasible. Just setting an artificial date doesn’t always work. You have to have faith in American ingenuity.”
The West Virginia Democrat also warned his party not to neglect fossil fuel workers as it seeks to transition the economy to cleaner energy.
“I trust President-elect Biden will be very sympathetic to the hard work and values all these hard-working people have given this country and do everything possible for these people to live and provide for their families,” Manchin said. “We have to find a way to make that happen. It’s a way to build trust in rural areas that are very skeptical of Democrats.”
Manchin has long argued that fossil fuels must be a part of the future electricity grid, and he has helped Congress pass legislation supporting carbon capture technologies that would enable coal and natural gas plants to continue running by preventing their emissions from reaching the atmosphere.
“You can use coal and oil and gas in much cleaner fashion,” Manchin said. He also added that natural gas, which emits half the carbon of coal but is targeted by liberal climate activists, “has to be” part of the energy mix because it is “very efficient” and a “tremendous part of our environmental portfolio.”
Biden has indicated he too supports promoting the use of fossil fuel plants equipped with carbon capture, which could qualify for his carbon-free electricity target, but such technologies are expensive and not commercially widespread.
The president-elect resisted calls by liberal climate activists to impose a total ban on fracking, the technique to drill for oil and gas that sparked the shale boom, but he’s expected to make huge investments in clean energy that could make it hard for fossil fuels to compete.
“We have the same goals to make sure the U.S. remains energy independent,” Manchin said of him and Biden. “The only way we can do that is to use all energy sources but in the cleanest fashion possible.”
Biden has also proposed a narrower ban on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Manchin would not say if he opposes such a ban and said that he trusts Biden’s “very pragmatic instincts” to implement it in the “right way.”
“I would never say that [no] on anything,” Manchin said.
Manchin supports Biden’s vow to crack down on methane leaks from oil and gas operators by imposing tougher regulations. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is more potent than carbon but does not linger as long in the atmosphere.
“There should be no methane escape,” Manchin said. “If operators are not doing it right, get it right or they should go away.”
Manchin has a strong relationship with Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican from Wyoming, another coal state, who will be the ranking member of the Energy Committee. He predicted that they would find common ground in the same way he did with Lisa Murkowski, the committee’s outgoing GOP chairwoman from Alaska, who worked with Manchin to pass a massive package of clean energy technology investments through Congress last month.
“John and I will get along just great,” Manchin said.
Barrasso thinks the same of Manchin.
“Sen. Barrasso looks forward to working with Sen. Manchin to expand America’s energy dominance, support cutting-edge environmental innovation, and grow the economy,” said Mike Danylak, a Barrasso spokesman.
Manchin is happy that Democrats have control of the Senate, but with his power in Congress at an all-time high, he’s vowing to use it carefully. The West Virginia Democrat prefers that legislation be made through the regular bipartisan process and is skeptical of passing sweeping partisan measures through a budget tool called reconciliation. He’s already ruled out voting to kill the filibuster, which requires most legislation to get 60 votes to pass, not just a simple majority.
“I have been around for a long time. I have watched people use power and abuse power. The bottom line is it’s better if you use it in the most constructive way. My main goal is to make sure to do everything possible to bring the country together in a bipartisan way. I have done that all my life and will not stop now. I am not changing,” Manchin said.