Let’s start with the climate crisis’s Golden Rule: while the wealthy may see a decline in the value of their investment holdings, it is the weak and vulnerable who suffer the most. In Bangladesh and Nigeria, it is true. On the Gulf Coast, that is true. And in the Appalachian coalfields, that is unquestionably true.
The majority of people who are concerned about the advancement of human civilisation thought last week was excellent. The best news anyone who cares about the future of the earth has heard in a very long time was when West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin stopped hesitating and declared that he would support a $369 billion climate/energy package (also known as the Inflation Reduction Act). Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota is tweeted. Holy sh*t. But in a nice way, stunned. In addition, it would put the US on schedule to reduce climate pollution by 40% by 2030, which is close to the 50% reduction President Biden requested from committed to last year. The agreement would be momentous for our nation, according to Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate majority.
Maria Gunnoe, the director of the Mother Jones Community Foundation and a stalwart supporter of the West Virginia coal industry who has seen firsthand how much Manchin loves his yacht more than the residents of the southern coal regions, responded differently. What is he up to? was my first thinking. I learned during the weekend from Gunnoe. I’ve learned not to trust Joe Manchin.
In fact, she was correct. It is now obvious that Manchin wants a side deal to speed up the permitting process for major infrastructure projects like pipelines, coal mines, and chemical plants in his home state as part of the price for supporting the climate pact. Not only is it a horrible idea for the climate, but it also reinforces the myth that God designed Appalachia as a terrain for mining, blasting, and burning. West Virginia activists have referred to the southern coal fields as a national sacrifice zone for America’s insanely destructive appetite for coal and gas for the past 30 years, since the age of mountaintop removal mining began. It is accurate. Arsenic poisons the soil, the mountains have been destroyed by blasting, and large coal impoundments—man-made lakes that the coal industry uses to wash the coal after it is mined—loom over the constrained hollows. Much of Appalachia is still impoverished, damaged, and vulnerable after 100 years of mining coal and drilling for gas.
On the surface, streamlining the permitting process is a great and desperately needed move in the right direction. Transmission towers, wind turbines, and solar panels are all essential to the transition to renewable energy. Additionally, each of them must go through a permitting procedure that may take a decade in some situations. Getting a lot of new crap built quickly is crucial if America is to take its commitment to reducing emissions seriously.
However, that is not what will occur in the Appalachian coalfields.
The streamlining of permitting is simply Washington speak for continuing to do whatever the coal and gas industries want to do. In this view, Manchin’s real objective in this permitting deal isn’t to assist makers of electric vehicles in getting approval to develop a new factory that will kickstart a new energy economy in Appalachia or renewable energy companies in locating new solar panels. Its purpose is to secure the infrastructure for Appalachian fossil fuel development in the next generation. It’s a ploy to ensure that the big cats who frequent The Greenbriar extract every last dollar from the state before they vanish into obscurity. That is the endgame strategy for the fossil fuel business pretty much everywhere, but in Appalachia, where people have already suffered so much and for so long, it is especially bare and obscene.
On September 30, 2021, Senator Joe Manchin is pictured in front of the US Capitol.
Getty Images/Kevin Dietsch
The six billion dollar, 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will transport fracking gas from West Virginia to Virginia, is Exhibit A in Manchin’s plans to maintain West Virginia a fossil fuel billionaires playground. The permitting agreement would establish new two-year caps, or maximum timetables, for environmental reviews of significant projects, according to an one-page summary that the Washington Post was able to access. That’s great and everything. But according to the Post, the deal’s main objective would be to pave the road for the approval of Manchin’s favorite project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The agreement would also require that the Fourth District, where environmentalists have had success, not have jurisdiction over the pipeline lawsuits. In particular, the bill would give the D.C. Circuit authority over any upcoming legal disputes and mandate that pertinent authorities take all required steps to approve the building and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
In other words, the agreement states that we will take all reasonable steps to ensure that the Mountain Valley Pipeline is built.
According to Abbie Dillen, president of Earthjustice, we require the volume of investment in the IRA to hasten the adoption of renewable energy and climate solutions. Combining these investments with free fossil fuels is really harmful. It’s a bad deal that will make it even more difficult for Gulf South and Appalachian towns to develop robust new economies.
This attempt to ram the pipeline through is particularly damning because it serves as yet another illustration of the fossil fuel industry’s inability to compete in the rapidly evolving energy market without continuing to rely, as it has done for many years, on favors from bribed politicians and good ol’ boys.
James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law and author of the recently released book The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution, claims that the Mountain Valley Pipeline is currently on life support. Who is going to buy it with states adopting clean energy goals and utilities phasing out the usage of natural gas for space and water heating in favor of electric heat pumps and electric water heaters? I’m not convinced the economics support finishing the pipeline. We shouldn’t lock in another 30 years of natural gas infrastructure investment since the money will become stranded.
And there is a reason the pipeline has been delayed, as Van Nostrand notes. According to him, the developers have been continuously breaking the Clean Water Act and pressuring state officials to grant licenses that shouldn’t have been granted. It is terrible environmental (and legislative) policy, and the only way MVP can be built is by altering the regulations to exempt MVP from the environmental review that would otherwise be applicable.
Its climate policy is equally terrible. According to one research, the pipeline, which is now only a few miles from tweeted0, would produce 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions year, which is equivalent to 26 new coal-fired power plants or 19 million cars. On its journey from West Virginia to Virginia, the pipeline’s present route would cross tweeted1 streams and wetlands carrying gas.
According to Patrick Grenter, the deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, the Mountain Valley Pipeline is awful for the environment and harmful for communities, all for the sake of gas we don’t need. Forcing it through is the last thing we ought to be doing.
The pipeline is merely the most well-known fossil fuel project in Appalachia that is now in the works. There are more coal mines and gas fields that need to be fracking. And some things, like chemical plants, require a smooth permitting procedure in order to be built. According to Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, the fossil fuel industry engineered this permits arrangement in their favor. Only these environmental restrictions stand between individuals who reside in weak communities and a really cruel enterprise.
The terrible floods that occurred in eastern Kentucky last week, where between 8 and 10 1/2 inches of rain fell over 48 hours, set records for flooding on the Kentucky River, served as a stark reminder of all this to Gunnoe. A total of 12 Aa are known dead, while hundreds more are still unaccounted for.
Kentucky’s floods were not a result of a natural disaster. The strip-mined mountains that, in the words of Kentucky campaigner Teri Blanton tweeted3, allow water to run off them like water to run down a Walmart parking lot, plus the torrential rains brought on by a superheated environment (warm air holds more water than colder air) made them lethal.
Gunnoe informed me straight up that Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin are aware that these floods are man-made.
A difficult moral calculus is currently at play for many of the activists I spoke with in West Virginia. On the one hand, they are delighted that a historic climate agreement is within grasp. On the other hand, worry that Appalachia may incur an excessive cost.
The agreement on permits is still only a handshake between Manchin, Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House majority. The climate agreement itself must first be completed, and that is by no means a given. There is still plenty of time to challenge the permitting side agreement and make sure that it does not become a free pass for fossil fuel entrepreneurs.
Gunnoe is understandably concerned that the residents of West Virginia’s coal region will once again be forgotten in the celebration of this historic legislation and the effort that helped make it happen.
From the very beginning of coal production, Gunnoe claims he has battled for climate action for 30 years. West Virginians have essentially pleaded for access to clean water, good air, and respectable, long-term employment. We have pleaded for a stop to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and for the miners to be given safe working conditions with guaranteed pensions and retirement. Long ago, we stood up and pleaded for others to join us. Appalachian people are due a future that we do not yet have. Everyone around the climate debate table needs to keep that in mind.