Janine Jackson interviewed David Moore about Joe Manchin’s conflicts of interest on climate change for the September 24, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A couple months ago, FAIR’s Julie Hollar noted that even as they reported on climate legislation and the key role of Joe Manchin as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, corporate media were failing to point out the West Virginia Democrat’s conflicts of interest when it comes to fossil fuels.
A four-month survey found a total of two stories mentioning Enersystems, the coal brokerage firm Manchin founded. And those stories implied that his connection to the company was a thing of the past.
That’s changed now, with a September 20 front-pager by the New York Times’ Coral Davenport that put Manchin’s continued profiting from coal production in the same sentence as indications that he will shape legislation to suit that profiteering.
It’s an advance, to be sure. But well before the Times stepped up, there were independent reporters connecting those dots around Manchin, including our next guest.
David Moore is co-founder of the investigative news outlet Sludge. He joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, David Moore.
David Moore: Thank you very much.
JJ: There are a number of elements to Manchin’s fossil fuel conflicts that you’ve reported on. Fair to say it’s well beyond just, “Well, he’s from coal country, so he’s sticking up for his constituents.” That doesn’t cover it when it comes to him, though, does it? Tell us what’s going on.
DM: That’s right. I think there’s an ambient perception that, well, Joe Manchin is from coal country, and he has ties and fondness to West Virginia. But that actually really understates the extent of his ties to the fossil fuel industry, and especially his household’s personal income and wealth that’s held in his family-held coal brokerage.
One of the ways that our independent newsroom Sludge came to this story first highlighting Manchin’s fossil fuel wealth was through an analysis of all of the stocks held in fossil fuel companies by every member of Congress. In a story early last year, we found that 134 members of Congress hold as much as $93 million worth of stock in fossil fuel companies and mutual funds. That’s a towering amount. And they’re members of Congress who sit on key committees in the House and the Senate.
But Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a truly unique case, because by taking over the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee in the current Congress, he’s positioned himself as a key driver of climate legislation, and also as a veto vote over climate measures that he views as being too rapid, even though they’re what scientists say are the kind of steps necessary.
In the investigation this summer, we looked into how Joe Manchin’s family company Enersystems positioned themselves in the West Virginia coal industry, and also how it grew to have stakes of between $1–5 million for Joe Manchin’s household, with an annual income that’s averaged about half a million dollars since Joe Manchin joined the Senate a decade ago, for a total of about $4.5 million just since Manchin joined the Senate.
JJ: First, I wanted to note that on ReadSludge.com, you have an interactive feature that can actually tell folks whether their congressmembers are profiting from the very fossil fuels that we know we have to eliminate. It’s disheartening that such a feature is needed, but it’s there if folks want to look it up.
Back to Manchin: He also gets more campaign donations; he really does stand out in terms of being the recipient of the largesse of oil, coal and gas.
DM: That’s right. So he’s a top recipient of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. And his ties from the oil and gas industry, and the coal industry especially, his ties to them also include assurances and outreach. This summer in about June, he spoke with a top utilities lobbying group that’s called the Edison Electric Institute, a powerful trade association in DC. And he expressed concerns about the Biden administration’s climate plans, and about the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by implementing climate measures.
Not disclosed during this online speech that he gave to these powerful utilities and power producers groups was that, in fact, his family company, Enersystems, has a contract with a power plant that sells electricity to one of their client companies, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy.
In this way, Joe Manchin has positioned himself at the forefront of seeking to slow down and weaken the climate regulations that would help utilities produce more from renewables, and then wind down the use of coal and methane gas, over the past decade. It’s underappreciated that Joe Manchin’s family company is bringing in significant revenue, in the ballpark of millions of dollars, from the Grant Town power plant in West Virginia, the only power plant in West Virginia that runs on the type of waste coal that his family-held company, currently run by his son, Joseph IV, services for this electricity provider.
JJ: I’ve been reading some specifics about what Manchin wants to remove or change from the climate legislation that’s been put forward. But if he doesn’t support eliminating the burning of fossil fuels, how much does it matter whether he’s for rewarding renewables? It’s kind of a breakpoint issue, isn’t it? I keep reading, “Well, it could still be better than they are now.” But this is kind of a make-or-break thing, isn’t it?
DM: The deadlines that climate scientists have set for ending the burning of coal and natural gas in the energy mix are fast approaching. Reports from the UN’s IPCC report, as well as from the International Energy Agency, are emphasizing that fossil fuel production needs to begin ramping down quickly, with a goal of around 2030, 2035, that many climate scientists, and also many Democratic policymakers who are more environmentalist, say needs to happen.
Joe Manchin’s plan seeks to continue the burning of coal up through and past that date. And especially in his most recent actions, speaking here in September of 2021, he’s seeking to boost the prospects of methane gas to continue to be part of the energy grid. Through this work, he’s seeking to continue his personal companies’ profits, and the $5 million in Enersystems, which in turn allows him this image that he’s crafted himself of independence: The houseboat that he lives on in DC, for example, comes from significant wealth held in the burning of waste coal that he’s seeking to prolong and continue through governmental policy.
JJ: It might seem unrelated, but you just reported earlier this week another disturbing development with regard to Manchin, and that’s cutting ethics provisions from For the People. Can you explain that in laypersons’ terms?
DM: That’s right. In addition to slow-walking and weakening the climate measures, Sen. Joe Manchin has been active in the Democratic deliberations around a major ethics and campaign finance reform bill, previously introduced and passed by the House as the For the People Act. It’s been filibustered in the Senate, and it is now a different set of compromised voting legislation called the Freedom to Vote Act.
DM: Sen. Joe Manchin took the lead on demanding that this package of reforms eliminate almost all of the ethics reform measures, which would have prevented lawmakers from working in their financial self-interest, and also significantly weakened the campaign finance reform that amplifies the value of small-dollar donations, and would have experimented with other types of public campaign financing that would have made candidates less reliant on outside spending and big-money donors to be able to run their campaigns.
This is all in line with years of alliances with the Chamber of Commerce, and especially even with companies who are participating members of the right-wing legislative state network ALEC, of which Sen. Joe Manchin is a former West Virginia chair when he was a state senator, before he was secretary of state and before he was governor of West Virginia. Joe Manchin has taken the lead in diluting and preventing the ethics provisions that were endorsed by Democrats in the House and have the support of Senate Democrats.
JJ: Let me ask you, finally, just a question that I always have. When financial, beneficial connections are pointed out, as in Manchin’s case, they’re sometimes presented as “potential conflicts of interest.” The implication is that I can hold millions in stock on toasters, and then write the laws regarding toasters. But if you don’t have a picture of me, you know, rubbing my hands fiendishly and saying, “I’m doing this to make money, bwahaha,” then it’s somehow not yet corruption. But if you’re a lawmaker, why isn’t a conflict of interest itself corruption? I don’t quite get it.
DM: It’s a great question, and it’s one that has long plagued policymakers of the last decade, as we look to achieve policy-making independence in Congress. One of the first things that I can recommend in approaching the problem is one can drop any common-sense notions of conflict of interest or ethics standards in Congress; members of Congress and their leadership in both parties simply don’t want these rules to apply to them. Members of Congress don’t want to pick up ethics regulations that would be common sense to anyone else. Like, you can’t be the chair of the Energy Committee while also holding up to $5 million in a waste coal plant that’s polluting both the air and the land and water of your home state.
Reformers often point out that these common-sense notions don’t apply to members of Congress, and I think one of the best ways to see their impact is over the past decades, as climate measures hit roadblock after roadblock in Congress, as these mounting climate deadlines continue to approach, we’re clearly looking at decades of inaction by Congress on climate, and on other really vital environmental policies.
And I think if you look at the decades of inaction, it’s very reasonable to follow that the impacts of the fossil fuel industry lobbying and the trade associations of the electricity industries are having a disproportionate influence on policy making, and that these common-sense ethics, that pushing them, especially with the leadership in both parties, is going to be a really helpful step towards implementing, winding down the burning of coal into the atmosphere, and beginning the adoption of clean, renewable energies.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with David Moore from Sludge. Find their work online at ReadSludge.com. Thank you, David Moore, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
DM: Thank you very much.
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This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.