Joe Manchin's 'Good Friend,' Union Leader Cecil Roberts, Says Eliminating Fossil Fuels Is a Deal-Breaker

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), told Newsweek on Wednesday that he could not support President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan with its current goal of achieving 80 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.

Part of the plan, the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), consists of a $150 billion program designed to increase the amount of clean energy distributed to consumers by 4 percent each year. Companies that complete this objective would receive financial incentives and those that fail would face financial penalties.

Under this plan, Roberts said, coal-fired power plants could face a succession of closures, as they would likely fail to meet these deadlines. While coal plants could theoretically meet requirements through the process of storing emissions using carbon capture and sequestration, current technology. Roberts said, makes it unfeasible and that he does not expect it to catch up by the time of Biden's proposed deadlines.

"If they said they were going to eliminate fossil fuels in 50 years, it may not be a [deal-breaker], but they're not saying that," Roberts told Newsweek. "The way it looks right this minute is to eliminate fossil fuels by 2030, and that is not something we can support."

Should the CEPP be implemented, Roberts said he fears thousands of coal miners and coal power plant workers could lose their jobs. He said this would economically devastate Appalachia, where many areas rely on the coal sector as a primary source of employment and tax revenue. One state in particular that would feel the bleeding of this policy would be Roberts' home state of West Virginia, represented in the U.S. Senate by his "good friend" Joe Manchin.

Joe Manchin Cecil Roberts
During a press conference before the National Press Club, Cecil Roberts referred to Joe Manchin as his "good friend." Above, Manchin and Roberts pose after the senator received an endorsement from the union on March 23, 2018. Manchin for West Virginia

Manchin, like Roberts, opposes the current version of the CEPP. He said that natural gas "has to be" a part of the program when he was questioned by The Hill on September 30. However, recent reporting indicates he wants to move away from the program altogether, with Politico writing on October 13 that "he wants to kill" the provision.

When it comes to the issue of carbon emissions, Manchin has long advocated "innovation, not elimination." He has spoken favorably toward the development of carbon capture and sequestration to make energy sources like coal clean. However, he is "very, very disturbed" at the prospect of eliminating fossil fuels entirely, which he believes some of the language in the bill indicates.

Like Roberts, Manchin has had a long relationship with West Virginia's coal mining industry. Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner, once worked in the mines and has served as UMWA president since 1995. Manchin, whose grandfather and father were mayors of the coal mining town of Farmington and whose uncle worked and died in the mines, earned the bulk of his $7.6 million net worth through the business of coal. According to The Intercept, Manchin's family owns two coal businesses, with his share being held in a blind trust.

However, beyond their own personal ties, each represents a constituency rooted in the coal industry. Roberts leads nearly 60,000 coal miners, manufacturing workers and clean-coal technicians. Manchin represents a state where, outside of government enterprises, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction stand as the largest industry within its gross domestic product. Both have also presided over the sector as it faces a state of decline.

In 2009, the U.S. employed over 86,000 coal miners. Today, it employs just over 42,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roberts said many of these miners made $75,000 to $100,000 and paid "almost nothing out of pocket" for health care. He worries that the current version of the reconciliation bill does not guarantee long-term employment for displaced miners in Appalachia, much less employment that earns them the kind of revenue and benefits they've become accustomed to under the union.

Coal Mining Jobs Drop 15 Percent In
West Virginia and other Appalachian states that are working to reinvent their communities as the coal industry diminishes in size. Above, Coal is loaded onto a truck at a mine on August 26, 2019 near Cumberland, Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky, once littered with coal mines, is seeing that industry rapidly slip away. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Biden's plan states that it will create "250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines" that offer the choice of union membership. However, Roberts fears these workers will ultimately be left behind during the switch to renewable energy. With roughly 80 percent of solar panels being manufactured in China, Roberts said that blue-collar clean-energy positions may not make their way to states like West Virginia, forcing workers to either leave or join a new sector.

To avoid this, Roberts supports maintaining mining jobs and working to make them clean through carbon capture and sequestration. A March 3 report by the United Nations urged the development of this technology as a means for areas relying on mining and fossil fuels to "decarbonize" and bridge "the gap until 'next generation' carbon energy technologies become available." He stands by this report as evidence for an alternative path forward.

"We'll never get to where we need to be as a planet without that technology," Roberts told Newsweek. "But we don't see a lot of that right now with respect to protecting the jobs that we have, extending the life of those jobs, having a place for coal miners to go, having a place for people who work into coal fired power plants to go, and having a tax base [in the coal regions] protected for a longer period of time."

While Biden's plan mentions the use of carbon capture technology as a tool toward accomplishing the plans goals, to what extent it will be prioritized and how fast the technology may be developed to make the option viable remains unknown. For Manchin and Roberts, who both identify as Democrats, there are too many unknowns associated with the current version of the bill as the two men seek to keep some blue in a deeply red state.

A Democratic president has not won West Virginia since Bill Clinton, yet prior to that election, the only three Republicans to win since 1932 were Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Currently, the state's three congressional districts are represented by Republicans, but before the early 2000s, they often trended blue. Prior to the 2015 election of Manchin's Republican Senate counterpart Shelley Moore Capito, the state had not been had Republican senators since the 1950s.

United Mine Workers Holds Rally Urging Congress
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts opposes the current version of the CEPP. Above, Roberts, center, joined about 100 members of the UMWA in blocking traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol following a rally on the National Mall September 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"West Virginia was the bluest of the blue states, and that started to end in 2000, and over the last 21 years this state has become the reddest state in America or is at least competing for that," Roberts told Newsweek. "We used to be Massachusetts, but now we're Mississippi when it comes to politics."

West Virginia became a state after its delegates voted to secede from Virginia after that state joined the confederacy, yet in the past decade its politics have aligned more closely with the Deep South. A majority of its voters identify as Protestant, have a high school education or less, live in rural areas, think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and believe gun control laws should be left as they are, according to a 2020 New York Times poll.

In contrast, most Democratic voters who chose Biden on a national level identified as having no religion, have a college degree, live in urban areas, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and believe gun laws should be made stricter, according to a 2020 New York Times poll.

As the national Democratic Party's makeup and values have drifted further away from that of West Virginia, the party's agenda also came in conflict with the state's way of life. Environmental advocate Al Gore narrowly lost the state to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, becoming the first Democrat to lose in a national election since 1984. Former President Barack Obama proved to be extremely unpopular, netting an approval rating of just 24 percent in West Virginia in the last year of his presidency, according to Gallup, his lowest rating in any state. This was due in part to his environmental policies being labeled as a "war on coal" by the fossil fuel industry.

Sen. Joe Manchin Holds Town Hall Meeting
Senator Joe Manchin has had a long relationship with West Virginia's coal mining industry. Above, Manchin holds a town hall meeting with coal miners on March 31, 2017, in Matewan, West Virginia. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

These trends weigh on Manchin as political concerns, especially given that he won reelection by just 0.3 percent in 2018. For Roberts, Manchin is not just a good friend concerned about the future of the coal industry; he is also someone willing to fight for the right to unionize.

Manchin is a co-sponsor on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would expand "various labor protections related to employees' rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace." It would also override "right to work" laws passed in many states, including West Virginia, that prohibit "fair share agreements" which require all employees in a bargaining unit to contribute dues to the union representing them, greatly diminishing union strength and allowing for free riders.

It remains unlikely that this bill would pass the divided Senate, yet some pieces of it could make their way into a final form of the reconciliation bill. Politico reports that the bill contains provisions to strengthen the National Labor Relations Board and empower it to conduct union elections online. While this does not encompass the full scope the bill, time will tell as to whether pro-union Democrats like Joe Manchin are able to pass additional labor protections and powers through budget reconciliation.

"We need the right to organize in this country again, and if we get that right, we'll have a resurgence in a lot of these areas turning bad jobs into good jobs," Roberts told Newsweek. "Coal mining jobs were terrible jobs until the union made them good jobs. The labor movement can make these jobs in the renewable sector good paying jobs, but we have to have an ability to organize those facilities."