Senate bill could be read to help West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The sprawling economic package passed by the U.S. Senate this week has a certain West Virginia flavor to it.

The package, passed without a Republican vote, could be read largely as an effort to help West Virginia look to the future without completely turning away from its roots.

Bill contains billions in clean energy incentives – while offering renewed support for traditional fuel sources such as coal and natural gas – as well as big increases for national parks and health care for low-income people and coal miners with black lung disease. It is not a coincidence. Most of the provisions were included as the price Democrats had to pay to win the all-important support of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who says they will help people at home.

John Palmer, a 67-year-old retired coal miner from Monongah, says it was about time.

“We haven’t had too many people caring about us,” Palmer said. “We are always out there fighting for different things. Everyone has an agenda, and our agenda was for working class people. That’s what everyone’s agenda should be, but it’s not.

Manchin, a conservative Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was a key vote needed to pass the 50-50 Senate spending package and send it to the House, where lawmakers are expected to consider it. Friday.

The bill invests nearly $375 billion to fight climate change, caps prescription drug costs at $2,000 for Medicare beneficiaries, and helps about 13 million Americans pay for health insurance by extending grants provided during the coronavirus pandemic.

If those subsidies aren’t extended, West Virginia is among the states that will lose the most support for people paying for health insurance, according to the Urban Institute, meaning thousands of people could lose coverage.

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the bill’s provision to cap insulin prices at $35 a dose for seniors will have 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 make decisions between buying groceries and paying the cost of a drug, or paying rent and paying the cost of a drug,” he said. she stated.

But Manchin, who has received more campaign contributions from gas pipeline companies this election cycle than any other lawmaker, has won concessions on the climate front. The bill includes funds to encourage alternative energy and to bolster fossil fuels with measures such as subsidies for technologies that reduce carbon emissions. It also forces the government to open more federal lands and waters to oil drilling.

In a statement, Manchin said he worked with colleagues to develop the “most effective way” to help West Virginia. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Manchin also proposed a separate list of laws to speed up federal authorization and make energy projects harder to block under federal law. As part of a deal with Democratic leaders, he specifically asked that federal agencies “take all necessary steps” to streamline the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project long opposed by environmental activists.

The 303-mile (487-kilometer) pipeline, which is largely complete, would carry natural gas drilled from the Appalachian Basin through West Virginia and Virginia. Legal battles delayed completion by nearly four years and doubled the cost of the pipeline, now estimated at $6.6 billion.

Chelsea Barnes, legislative director of Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization that has filed a lawsuit to stop the pipeline, said there is reason to be excited about the legislation. But she deemed Manchin’s concessions to the fossil fuel industry “unacceptable”.

“We’d really like to celebrate,” Barnes said, “but we know there’s so much in the bill that’s going to hurt communities as well.”

Barnes said the bill contains many provisions his organization has long wanted, such as extending and increasing tax credits for clean energy projects, with bonus credits for low-income communities. income and for communities where a coal mine or power plant has closed.

This means that clean energy developers will have more incentive to locate in Appalachia. She said many people she has worked with on clean energy projects are not thrilled to see coal jobs disappear, but are excited to be part of “the energy economy of the future”.

“They like the idea of ​​keeping this heritage of energy production, and I think they are very proud to continue to play this role in our society, in our culture,” she said.

Still, she is concerned about support for carbon sequestration and storage projects in the bill, saying they have not been cost effective compared to clean energy alternatives. She fears this will extend the life of power plants.

She also said allowing reform in the bill was tantamount to “allowing destruction” that would undermine the environmental review process and silence the voices of residents.

The bill also contains millions of dollars for tourism, long seen in West Virginia as a way to boost the state’s beleaguered economy. West Virginia is home to several national parks, including New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, which opened in 2020.

The National Park System would receive at least $1 billion as part of the package to hire new employees and carry out conservation and wilderness protection projects.

The bill also permanently extends the coal excise tax that pays monthly benefits to coal miners with black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust.

Since the program’s inception, more retired West Virginia miners have received black lung benefits than any other state, with 4,423 people receiving benefits last year. But the fund is $6 billion in debt.

For decades, the tax required annual legislative approval. Twice in recent years, federal lawmakers have failed to extend the tax, most recently for this year. This cut the tax by more than half – a boon for coal companies putting profits at risk.

The fund is needed more than ever, United Mine Workers of America Chief of Staff Phil Smith said, with miners being diagnosed with black lung at a younger age than before due to higher amounts of silica dust in mines – which is not regulated.

Palmer worked underground for 40 years at Federal Mine No. 2 in Monongalia County, which went bankrupt and closed shortly after his retirement a few years ago. Her father, a coal miner, died of lung disease and her younger brother also has black lung. He said knowing the money will be there is a “relief” and that miners gain the benefit – on average just over $700 a month – when they are at risk of doing dangerous work.

“We went down to these holes that kept the lights on for everyone,” he said. “We are the ones who sacrifice our bodies.”

Norman D. Briggs