How Coal Maintains Its Political Hold on West Virginia

West Virginia’s coal industry has out-sized influence in the state’s politics, and in Washington. But the industry’s power has come at a cost to West Virginians.

The state of West Virginia has made headlines over the past year on the high profile of its senior senator, Joe Manchin, who has been the swing vote in the Senate on major energy legislation. Most dramatically, Manchin’s last-minute deal with Senate Democratic leadership in July allowed for the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act that provides billions of dollars in tax incentives for wind and solar power. Yet in negotiations, Manchin blocked provisions that are central to President Biden’s clean energy and climate agenda, while gaining concessions to the fossil fuel industry that holds so much political sway in his home state.  

James Van Nostrand, author of Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution, examines how the coal industry succeeded in shaping West Virginia politics and, by extension, came to influence national energy policy.  Van Nostrand, a professor of law at West Virginia University, also examines how coal’s political influence has left West Virginia ill-prepared to benefit economically from clean energy as the market for coal declines.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Andy Stone. The state of West Virginia has made headlines over the past year on the high profile of its senior Senator, Joe Manchin, who has been the swing vote in the Senate on major energy legislation. Most dramatically, Manchin’s last-minute deal with Democratic Senate leadership in July allowed for the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act that provides billions of dollars in tax incentives for wind and solar power. Yet in negotiating the past year’s big energy bills, Manchin, a Democrat, blocked provisions that are central to President Biden’s clean energy and climate agenda. Manchin also gained concessions to the fossil fuel industry that holds so much political sway in his home state. On today’s podcast, we’re going to take a look at the powerful role of the fossil fuel industry and coal, in particular, in shaping West Virginia politics and by extension, federal energy policy. My guest is James Van Nostrand, a professor of law at West Virginia University who has three decades of energy litigation experience. This summer, Van Nostrand published a book titled Coal Trap: How West Virginia was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution. The book explores the power of the coal lobby and electric utility industry in the state and how their influence has left West Virginia ill-prepared to economically benefit from new forms of energy, even as the market for coal has continued to wane. James, welcome to the podcast.

James Van Nostrand: Thank you, Andy. Good to be here.

Stone: So you were a litigator working within the energy industry before becoming a professor of law. Could you start us out by giving us a bit of background on your legal work and now your interest in West Virginia energy policy?

Van Nostrand: Sure. I grew up as the son of a utility regulator. My father was chairman of the Iowa Commerce Commission, now the Iowa Utilities Board. So I’ve always had an interest in energy issues and energy regulation issues. When I graduated from law school, I spent five years with the New York Public Service Commission, sort of learning the business of utility regulation. And then in ‘85, I moved out to Seattle and joined one of the large law firms that represents investor-owned utilities. And so for 22 years, between 1985 and 2007, when I started transitioning into law teaching, I represented investors in utilities rate cases throughout the Northwest. And then when I went to space law school in White Plains, New York, in 2008, I ended up getting my LLM, which is a master’s of law, degrees in environmental law, and I pretty much became more of an environmental lawyer after Massachusetts versus EPA in 2007. It seemed like there was a convergence between energy and environmental law. If you join energy law, you need to know something about environmental law and vice versa. And it was a good time to get a degree in environmental law and learn more about how the environmental impacts of energy production come into play.

Stone: So you recently published a book about energy policy and regulation in West Virginia. The title of the book is Coal Trap. Why did you choose that name?

Van Nostrand: The premise of the book, the working title was the Lost Decade. Basically the ten years, roughly from 2009 to 2019, roughly when I came to the state and I saw the impact of shale gas and in terms of the Marcellus Shale and the extraction of massive quantities of fairly inexpensive natural gas, the impact that that was having on the coal industry, which I saw, was really creating an inevitable transition in the energy industry away from away from coal towards natural gas, and then towards the later part of that decade, renewables, wind and solar. And the coal trap really captures the fact that, you know, the coal industry is a source of great pride and it’s part of the culture of the state. I learned pretty quickly when I got here. It’s almost unpatriotic if you’re not an avid supporter of the coal industry. And I think the state has really grappled with how to honor that legacy, that heritage, this, you know, this notion that we industrialize the United States on the backs of the Appalachian coal miners, how you honor that legacy, but still recognize that the energy future is changing. And we need to we need to move on. And so it’s a trap of sorts in terms of I think it’s really hindered West Virginia making the necessary and inevitable transition in the energy industry.

Stone: Now, early in the book, and we’re looking at that period, about a decade before this last decade itself began talking around the turn of the century, you highlight that a key transition took place in West Virginia around that time. And by that time, the United Mine Workers of America, which is the miners union, had lost much of its political clout. And around the same time, a new group emerges, this one backed by the coal industry itself, and it’s called Friends of Coal. What led to the declining power of the miners union and what was the focus of this new group as it came in to kind of fill the void?

Van Nostrand: Well, the United Mine Workers really started losing their influence, mostly because just the sheer number of miners declined as a result of mechanization. I mean, the peak employment in West Virginia happened in 1940. We had 130,000 coal miners in 1940. But then with mechanization, with longwall mining and continuous continuous miners, mining equipment, and then later on mountaintop removal, you just need fewer miners to extract large amounts of coal. And so you had just a decline in the number of miners, which obviously translates into fewer members of the United Mine Workers. And then you started having some of the large operators try to break the unions. Don Blankenship, Massey Energy comes to mind in terms of taking over union operations, closing them down, and reopening them as nonunion operations. So you just had a declining influence in the United Mine Workers, which in turn has had an impact on the politics of the state in terms of unions are pretty reliable in terms of turning out Democratic voters. And so you have the number of union workers declining and, and that then has an impact in terms of whether turning out those Democratic voters. 2000 was another big event in terms of we had an environmentalist candidate as the nominee for the Democratic Party. It was Al Gore who, you know, negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, which was never confirmed by never ratified by the U.S. Senate, was the Democratic nominee. And I think at that point, there was the thinking that maybe Republicans had a chance to carry the state out. But with the decline in the influence of the United Mine Workers. About the same time, 2000, 2001, there had been some rather serious incidents involving coal trucks that were too heavy. There was thinking there were going to be legislation that was going to they were going to put weight limits on coal trucks. And so the West Virginia Coal Association realized they had an image problem. Mountaintop removal was starting to come into play. The decline in the number of miners was was a big was becoming apparent. And so it was like they needed something on the public relations front because environmental carnage is going to be much greater with mountaintop removal. And the contributions of the coal industry to the state were basically declining given the the reduced number of miners. And so they created, around 2001, this organization called Friends of Coal, which was really as I discussed in the book a very brilliant public relations strategy of just friends of coal bumper stickers everywhere. They had spokespersons like the very popular football coach at WVU, the very popular football ball coach at Marshall University, the two major universities in the state. You had a NASCAR driver, you had a trout fisherman, I mean, bass fishermen. You basically had all these spokespersons on the fact that the goal was to make it seem that coal inseparable, is just part of West Virginia. Coal identifies with West Virginia. The Friends of Coal was a very brilliant public relations campaign. Well, then some things to some extent, as I say in the book, filled the void that was left by organizing around the United Mine Workers, the union employees.

Stone: But this was, as you pointed out, very much driven by the industry and no longer by the workers, right?

Van Nostrand: Yeah, this was this is the Coal Association. The West Virginia Coal Association, which was the industry that pretty much is called a grassroots organization. But pretty much all the support for comes from the West Virginia Coal Association, which is funded by the industry itself.

Stone: So you pointed out a few minutes ago that in West Virginia, it’s almost unpatriotic to not support the coal industry. But friends of coal really pushed that angle, right? It almost made it to a point where, again, if I glean this correctly from the book, that it became politically impossible to deny the coal industry going forward. Is that an accurate characterization?

Van Nostrand: Yeah, I think the Friends of Coal that was the objective was to more or less exaggerate the role of coal in the state to make West Virginia inseparable from coal. The fact that Friends of Coal bumper stickers were everywhere. They even had license plates with friends of coal on there. There was a Friends of Coal bull when every year when Marshall would play WVU and football, that was called the Friends of Coal Bowl at WVU basketball games, it would be the coal keeps the lights on, and just sponsorship of a lot of events around the state. Another key aspect of it was there’s actually a curriculum in the elementary schools where students would write a thousand word essays on the importance of coal to West Virginia and compete for cash prizes. So it was it really strengthened this connection between coal and West Virginia and heritage and the legacy that coal has for the state.

Stone: So this is a shocking bit of statistic here that I was not aware of before reading your book. West Virginia still gets 90% of its electricity from coal-fired generators, despite the fact that coal has become very expensive relative to other means of producing electricity. What has the impact of this dependence on coal as a fuel for electricity generation been on consumers in West Virginia?

Van Nostrand: It’s been very expensive for consumers in West Virginia. In fact, the number was 88% in 2020. It went up to 91% in 2021. Probably a lot of that was the connection to the to the pandemic. And an increase in price of natural gas makes coal competitive for some of the plants on the margin. But basically, that’s one of the big things I really wanted to focus on in the book. Because of my background in utility regulation and the power of the Public Service Commission, the utility regulators have just the impact of not diversifying the energy supply, our energy sources. Because a lot of states, once what I call the shale gas revolution happened around 2007, 2008, 2009, Marcellus Shale turned out to be the most productive natural gas-producing region in the country. A lot of utilities closed down their coal plants or they converted to natural gas, but they fled from coal about as quickly as they possibly could. In many states, many utilities were selling coal plants for pennies on the dollar because they were recognized as part of the basis for the lost decade. Hey, everybody knew this was going to happen. We just choose to ignore it in West Virginia. And so we doubled down on coal. We actually in the states I talked about in chapter ten of the book, I believe there are actually three coal plants that were formerly in an unregulated subsidiary. If the plants made money, the shareholders got the profits, if the plants lost money, the shareholders bore those losses. Well, they started losing money in 2011 and 2012 because natural gas, cheap and plentiful natural gas, started forcing down wholesale power prices in the region and those plants started losing money. And both American Electric Power and First Energy, the two large utilities in West Virginia, said, our solution is let’s put those plants into the regulated rate base in West Virginia. Let’s let the ratepayers bear the losses of those plants. And the Public Service Commission went along with that, approved all three plant transfers. So instead of most other states in the country which are moving away from coal, we actually increased the dependence on coal and took away any room that the utilities might have to diversify into natural gas or renewables or energy efficiency. And as a result, the calculations in my book roughly 2008 to 2020, which pretty much bookend the last decade, my calculations show that electricity rates in West Virginia increased at a rate that was five times the national average during that period in 2008. We have the lowest average retail rates in the country. We’re still below the national average of 2020. There are 12 states that were cheaper, but that rate of increase was five times the national average because we didn’t diversify into the cheaper sources of electricity like natural gas and the early part of the decade or at the end of the decade, wind and solar, 91% coal-fired as of 21.

Stone: So over this last decade, there were a series or maybe a cascade of legislative and regulatory inaction. In the state that kept cold dominant. And you just talked about the transfer of three coal-fired power plants from unregulated markets to regulated markets where ratepayers in West Virginia were now on the hook for those those those plants. But I want to get to another issue here that you point out, which is a bit technical, but I think it’s also worth going into a little bit deeper. And it builds off the point what you just brought up. I want to point out that West Virginia electric utilities were not required to have integrated resource plans or if they were, these plans were very loose at best. And this gets to the point there, combined with the fact that West Virginia still has regulated cost of service, electricity really created the environment in which many coal-fired generators have continued to operate despite their poor economics. Can you talk about this regulatory backdrop and how it’s influenced and prop up coal?

Van Nostrand: Yeah. When I first got to the state in 2011, I started making trips to Charleston and talking to policymakers and thought, well, where do I start? Where do I start in this state? And I thought, you know, I helped back in 1989 when the state of Washington adopted rules on integrated resource planning, I actually participated in that rulemaking in front of the Washington Commission when I was representing Puget Sound Energy. An integrated resource planning basically requires the utility to consider all its resource options. When it does, it basically looks at what are our demands going to be, what are our loads going to be? And then figure out, is there a supply gap? Do I need to bring on more resources? And then once you identify that supply gap, well, what’s the least cost way of filling that supply gap? So you put all your generating resources side by side coal, natural gas, wind, solar, but you also put demand-side resources on that same footing. So you require utilities to put energy efficiency on the same footing. That’s a huge part. That’s the integration part of integrated resource planning, was requiring utilities to put supply-side and demand-side options side by side because in many cases, energy efficiency is the lower cost path, and you want the utility to promote energy efficiency programs. So that was a start. We got the bill passed in 2014. It wasn’t as strong as what I would have liked. But then the utilities filed their first set of integrated resource plans in 2015, and Appalachian Power, A.P., American Electric Power subsidiary, they actually did a really a pretty good job in their integrated resource plan in terms of they used modeling to tell them how much energy efficiency they should acquire. And then they proceeded to go to the Public Service Commission to try to scale up their energy efficiency programs to achieve that level of electricity savings, Mon Power, the FirstEnergy subsidiary, never really took the integrated resource planning process seriously. It always used the process to support these proposed acquisitions of merchant plants that would be like, well, gosh, we have a 1300 megawatt deficit. Gee, here’s a coal plant right here in the service territory, the Pleasants Station Plant, which happens to be, gee, it happens to be 1300 megawatts. And so they would it was just a sham, basically, but they would use their integrated resource plan to basically build the case for decisions they decided to make anyway, which was to double down on coal. But bottom line, it was not a very rigorous process the commission had. There was no way for the commission to reject the plans or no way for the parties to really comment and critique the plans. It never really required the integration of supply-side and demand-side options. And as a result, I would say the utilities never really had to show their work in terms of why does coal continue to make sense. Now, more recently, they filed their second set of plans in December of 2020. And the center, which I directed at WVU, the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development. We came up with an alternative scenario. We called our plan the West Virginia’s Energy Future. We basically model two scenarios. One was the continued coal dependence path which we took of the utilities are going to be on left to their own devices. And the lack of any rigor rigorous, the analysis by the Public Service Commission, and then we created what’s called a ramped up renewable scenario where we would basically phase out the coal plants after a certain number of years and replace it with wind and solar and battery storage technology into and just basically said, here’s another scenario that results in lower rates over time, particularly there’s a price on carbon, but also the health benefits and the jobs benefits of going down a ramped up renewable path. It’s been a start in terms of, like I say, Appalachian Power – A.E.P. Has done a pretty good job with their IRP but FirstEnergy just they don’t take it seriously and the commission doesn’t really require them to take it seriously.

Stone: Well, it’s interesting as well, and I want to get into the way that the PSC and I guess the legislature have enabled this a little bit more, but you point out that the state did not have a clean energy standard for a long time, a renewable portfolio standard like a lot of states have, where over time renewable energy, clean forms of energy are supposed to become a progressively larger part of the resource mix in the state. One point the state did come up with a clean energy standard but very interestingly, the technologies that were included as clean energy included some of the more advanced coal-fired power plants, super-critical power plants, which still give off a whole bunch of carbon dioxide. They were counted as clean energy. And eventually, even this plan was shot down under the banner of cap and trade, which it had nothing to do with. But that’s how it was connected in the public’s mind by, I guess, Friends of Coal in the state. But tell us about this clean energy standard that really wasn’t, how it came into being and how it went away.

Van Nostrand: It came into being when Joe Manchin was the governor in 2009, and it started off pretty much like most state renewable portfolio standards. You require the utilities to procure a certain percentage of electricity supply from renewable sources. But once the coal industry got involved, then they created another term in there called Alternative Energy. So the standard was The Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. And alternative energy, as you said, was defined to include super-critical coal plants. And so basically, we have massive amounts of super-critical coal. So by the time that the standard was enacted, it had literally no effect whatsoever, because the way it worked is it could be either alternative or renewable or both, but you could satisfy it all with alternative. So but at the time it was enacted, it was already satisfied by virtue of the fact that you classify super-critical coal as being a source of alternative energy. And so it really had no effect whatsoever. The utilities would file their compliance plans with the PSC pretty much confirming, yeah, we’re not doing anything different because the standard is in place. But nonetheless, when the Republicans first took control of the legislature in 2015, a lot of them were elected under this narrative that that’s cap and trade, and Joe Manchin, his fingerprints are on it. And they were worried about the legacy of Joe Manchin. So the first that was the first measure they enacted in the 2015 legislative session was to repeal what we’ve already it was a worthless standard, but it gave West Virginia got a lot of national attention negative because we’re the first state to repeal a Renewable Portfolio Standard when in fact it was worthless from its inception. But it sent the signal that because the message was, well, it’s causing our electricity price to go up. And so if we eliminate this, then things will be okay. And it’s like, well, it never had any effect on electricity prices because utilities never did anything differently whatsoever while that standard was in place. But it you know, it was a cap-and-trade has such a negative connotation at that that it was you know, it died fairly quickly and that the measure was repealed fairly quickly in that 2015 legislative session.

Stone: You know, another interesting development, and I think this one’s fairly recent, is that the state has mandated a 69% capacity factor, a requirement for coal units. The capacity factor, meaning the plants have to work at 69% of their capability. How did that come about?

Van Nostrand: That came about a year ago. The utilities filed their annual power cost adjustment, which is fairly common mechanism. Most utilities around the country have some ability to adjust their rates annually to reflect what they spent for power and what they anticipate spending for power going forward. So last September, about a year ago, the utilities filed their ENECF, expanded net energy cost filings, which basically describe how they procured their power during the year. And the commissioners noted the capacity factors for the coal plants, which represents how much of the time that the coal plants actually operate on a percent capacity factor would mean it’s operating through 24/7 the capacity factors were in the thirties, forties, and fifties for some of the plants. And so the commission would question the utilities well why the capacity factor is so low. And both FirstEnergy and AEP, America Electric Power would say, well, we’re finally we’re able to displace the more expensive coal-fired generation with cheaper sources of power by market purchases. Why? Because wholesale prices were lower because of cheap and plentiful natural gas. Wind and solar were now cost-competitive with coal. So the utilities were doing what we expect them to do, which is to hold down your power costs by displacing higher-priced power with lower-price power. And that resulted in them dispatching the coal plants less. And the commission, in their orders last fall said that is not acceptable to us. We want you to continue to maintain your historical 69 to 70% capacity factors for the coal plants. The utilities, of course, are asking for reconsideration. Wait a little, let us get this right. You don’t want us to do what we’ve always done, which is to manage our power supply portfolio in a manner to hold down energy prices. You want us to keep running the coal plants regardless of whether that’s cost-effective for consumers? And the commission said, yes, that’s correct. And so now we’re looking at another round of filings by the utilities. In all my years of utility work, I’ve never seen anything like it. And having represented utilities for 22 years in the Northwest, I can feel their pain in terms of we think that’s our job with all. That’s what the commission would want us to do, is to try to hold cost down for consumers by procuring lower-cost power and displacing the higher-priced coal whenever we can. And now you’re telling us you don’t want us to do that anymore, but that’s where it stands right now. There’s this the commission hearing last week where the chairman of the commission made it clear. Why are you you have a hard time understanding that we want you to keep running the coal plants at 69-70%. That’s what we told you to do. And we expect you to do it.

Stone: You know, states generally have an office of the Public Advocate whose job it is to look out for consumers in utility rate cases, among other things. You know, where has the Virginia Public Advocate been through all of this? And a related question is, why is it that the PSC has been so aligned with the coal industry despite the potential costs that this has brought for consumers?

Van Nostrand: There is a consumer advocate division in the States. What I point out in the book is it’s really not given adequate resources to put on an opposing filing that in all the states I’ve litigated, there’s much more pushback when a utility files a case. The advocacy staff at the commission will put on almost a completely opposing case. So the commission has a record upon which to base its decision and the consumer advocate in all those states. When I was in Washington, it was the public counsel section, the attorney general’s office in Oregon, it was the Citizens Utility Board. But all the states were litigated cases. There was always a consumer advocate that was usually well-funded. West Virginia’s consumer advocate division is not very well-funded. They don’t have the resources really put on a good case. Another thing is that person serves at the pleasure of the agency of the chairman of the commission, and that’s just by design, not going to be very effective. So if that advocate does take too aggressive positions, anti-utility, chances are that person will be replaced. And so they’ve never really built to get very aggressive in terms of the Public Service Commission. I mean, one of the reasons we have our governor, Jim Justice, made all he made his fortune in the coal industry. I mean, he is a coal baron. And he appointed the former president of the West Virginia Coal Association, is now a commissioner on the Public Service Commission since August of 2021. The chair of the commission is Charlotte Lane, who previously lobbied for the coal, oil and gas industry. When she ran for the legislature and for Congress, she received a lot of campaign contributions from the utilities that operate in the state and the coal industry. Those are your two, two of three commissioners. And so what I say in the book is consumers are never going to get a fair shake in front of this public service commission as long as long as the fossil fuel industry has such a strong control over the agency.

Stone: Now, one of the great ironies that you mentioned earlier in our conversation is that West Virginia is a major producer of shale natural gas. I think it’s the fifth leading producer of natural gas in the country. It is on top of the Marcellus Shale. Yet natural gas is not used domestically within the state. But as has been in the news over the last few months, Senator Manchin has pressed for permitting reform, which is now on hold, but if that works its way into some sort of legislation going forward, we will see, presumably, the Mountain Valley Pipeline carry natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia where there is a market where natural gas is used in generation. It seems to me this is the situation where you’re kind of having a state that’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. It’s protecting its uneconomic coal industry and uneconomic coal generation through pretty much a monopoly of that industry inside the state’s borders. And it is also trying to develop natural gas, but not use it domestically, but look at ways to export that, too, to other states where it can be used. Is that what’s going on?

Van Nostrand: Yeah, it’s it’s pretty unbelievable. I mean, the fact of the matter is, West Virginia calls itself an energy state, but it really hasn’t been for decades. It’s a coal state. And that was quite apparent when after the shale gas revolution I referred to it in my book when massive quantities of natural gas started being extracted from the Marcellus Shale. The fact that no utilities in the state of West Virginia built any natural gas plants or converting coal plants to natural gas plants. Instead, as I mentioned, I was talking about before, they took three coal plants that were in the unregulated rate base and moved them into the regulated rate base. And as a matter of supply and demand, it pretty much sucked up all the opportunity that would have been there to diversify into natural gas renewables, because we double down on coal. So we don’t leave any room in terms of your energy supply portfolio to have any natural gas, to have any renewables, because we bought three more 40-year-old coal plants and put them on the regulator rate base. And the Mount Holly Pipeline is not going to provide any benefits at all for West Virginians other than it will allow more natural gas to be extracted from the Marcellus Shale. She’ll get some coal, gas, natural gas, severance payments going into the state budget. But, you know, we have split ownership of the surface owners versus the minerals. And so in many cases in West Virginia, the people living on the surface of the land do not own the mineral rights. The mineral rights are notoriously owned by out-of-state interests. And so a lot of the benefits of scaling up natural gas production at and in the Marcellus Shale as a result of mountain by pipeline are not going to go to West Virginians. We’re going to have the environmental scars of having a pipeline crossing the state and all the stream crossings and all the national forest crossings, but not really have much economic benefits going to be going down to Virginia and North Carolina.

Stone: Towards the end of the book. There’s a passage that I just want to read here very briefly that really kind of gets to the challenge that the state of West Virginia now confronts. And I’m just going to read this briefly. You say in the book, “can West Virginia continue to embrace and honor the heritage of the coal industry and the distinct respect commanded by coal miners and still move beyond that identity for the sake of the broader well-being of the average West Virginia?” And you point out that there are a lot of industries that potentially could move into the state industry, such as the Amazons of the world, tech companies, etc. But they’re really looking for places where they can get low-carbon energy to meet their own corporate ESG goals.

Van Nostrand: That’s one of the positive things I’ve seen in the last few years is I think the economic development folks in West Virginia are starting to have some influence with the legislators because the economic development agencies, I mean, they are they’re on the front lines. If you want to attract the clean energy jobs, you have to be able to provide access to renewable energy and preferably lower-cost energy. They come to West Virginia, they said, well, it’s 91% coal-fired and frankly, it’s still below the national average in terms of price, but it’s increasing very rapidly. And so that’s a nonstarter. And the thing is, with these, I call them the job creators. And in West Virginia, you know, it’s not just what we would call the high tech firms like the Google, the Facebook, the Microsoft, the Amazon. In West Virginia, we have Proctor and Gamble, we have Toyota and we have Wal-Mart. They all have very aggressive corporate sustainability goals that say they want to have a certain percentage of electricity supply coming from renewable sources. And if West Virginia wants to attract those jobs, keep those jobs, they’ve got to meet those demands. And the nice thing is, it’s not the government. It’s not Obama’s job-killing EPA, which was the mantra throughout the 2010’s. It’s these are your job creators and you need to meet those demands if you’re going to attract those jobs. And so I think we’ve seen some progress in terms of the legislature having to respond to that. There’s been three positive pieces of legislation each of the last three years, and I credit that with the economic development agency’s getting the word out that if we can keep going down the coal path, we’re going to lose the jobs because we’re not going to attract these employers who want access to renewable energy.

Stone: James, I wanted to come back to Senator Manchin for just a moment. As I said in the intro to this podcast, what happens in West Virginia really has impacted national energy policy, and that is gone through. Senator Manchin, can you tell us a little bit more about his role in shaping the energy policy landscape in West Virginia and how that’s trickled up to the national level?

Van Nostrand: I devote a whole chapter of the book to Senator Manchin most because the beginning of the last decade he was the governor. And there’s not a single person in the state that you could identify with the policies of the last decade than Senator Manchin. You know, the alternative renewable energy portfolio standard was enacted on his watch. And he’s become, you know, obviously very powerful as the chairman of the Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee. And I just, I hold him accountable, pretty much a lot of the… most of the politicians just for the failure of leadership. You know, that’s why I call it the lost decade. This transition was inevitable. Everybody saw it coming. Once the shale gas revolution happened, wholesale power prices went down. You were going to force coal out of the money. Everybody knew this was going to happen. And instead, every single politician, Republican or Democrat, literally for the entire decade, would just shake their fist at Washington and blame it on Obama’s job-killing EPA and the war on coal instead of managing the state through a transition that was necessary and inevitable. And no one I think is more accountable, should we be held more responsible for that than Joe Manchin because he was in a position to really do something about it?

Stone: So final question for you here, James. Do you think that the state will be able to transition, you know, create opportunity for new industries to come in?

Van Nostrand: I think they’re going to have to. I still think there’s going to be until we have some significant reform and movement at the state level, I think it’s going to be a real challenge. But we have seen the legislature responded just this year, Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables came and said, we want to build a 200 megawatt renewable microgrid in Jackson County, a former Century Aluminum site. But the terms of us coming there is we have to be able to sell the power within that microgrid to whomever we want to. And it’s not going to be regulated by the Public Service Commission. And so the legislature actually stepped up. And you have a big player, sophisticated player like Berkshire Hathaway wants to come to the state. They’re going to respond. So the legislature, the governor, called a special session. They passed a bill, basically gave Berkshire Hathaway everything it wanted. Now we’re going to have a pretty innovative 200 megawatt renewable microgrid with its own backup storage. It’s going to be a self-contained little utility, and they’re going to be able to sell power to another Berkshire affiliate, Precision Castparts, within that within that industrial park. That’s a pretty exciting development on the broader scale. I mean, another thing, we got so many good measures in the Inflation Reduction Act that could really help Virginia with West Virginia with that transition. At the same time, some of the policies at the state level that we’ve discussed, they’re really going to thwart that impact that the Inflation Reduction Act could otherwise have in West Virginia, because as long as the utility commission is beating all the utilities to keep in the coal plants, we might be providing incentives for wind and solar to be built in West Virginia, but where are those electrons going to go? Because you don’t have the utilities are not going to be acquiring the output from those projects because the commission is putting pressure on them to keep burning coal. So at the same time, we’ve got the signals coming from the federal government that and a lot of energy communities in West Virginia, which is a defined term, them the Inflation Reduction Act to get extra tax incentives by locating your investment, making you invest in energy communities, lots of energy communities in the state of West Virginia. But do you have those policies at the state level that are really going to encourage that investment to happen as long as we have the policymakers in the state who continue to insist on burning coal, regardless of whether it’s economic for consumers.

Stone: James, thanks very much for talking.

Van Nostrand: Thank you. Andy.

Stone: Today’s guest has been James Van Nostrand, a professor of law at West Virginia University. Thanks for listening to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleiman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. If you like the show, please subscribe through your favorite podcast app and leave us a message and a rating. We appreciate and look forward to your feedback. And for more energy policy insights, visit the Kleinman Center’s website. Our address is kleinmannergy.upenn.edu. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now and have a great day.

James Van Nostrand

Professor of Law, West Virgina University
James Van Nostrand is the Director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University College of Law.