Manchin says climate goals too "aggressive"

The Democratic Senator complained about the fast timeline for effective climate action while at a conference for a group that perpetuated delay.

Committee chairman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) listens during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Capitol Hill June 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin—the powerful Senate Energy Committee chairman widely seen as key to achieving any sort of climate legislation this year—knows humanity has to end its reliance on fossil fuels to preserve a livable climate. He just wants everyone to stop rushing, you know?

“I know there’s a change coming, OK?” Manchin said last week at the annual conference of the Edison Electric Institute, a powerful trade group for the electric utility industry. “But I’ve always been very, very cautious about this,” he said.

Manchin was referring to the Biden administration’s pledge to cut carbon emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030—a pledge necessitated by scientists’ warnings about the ever-worsening climate crisis. “I’m concerned that they’re setting a very aggressive timetable” for transitioning to a net zero economy, he said, according to comments reported by RTO Insider and Utility Dive.

Manchin also said he was worried about coal—not the fact that we’re still burning it, but that it’s being “singled out by environmentalists” as a polluter. The U.S. coal industry doesn’t pollute nearly as much as it used to, he said. And besides, China is currently burning more. “This is a global climate,” he said, Utility Dive reported. “Some of our environmental friends … they make [us] believe we are polluting the whole climate.” Manchin added he was worried environmentalists might try to eliminate coal altogether, something he said he would not accept. “You cannot eliminate your way there, [but] you can innovate your way there,” he said.

Manchin did not say he was worried about what might happen if the timetable is not aggressive; or what will happen if humanity continues to burn fossil fuels for much longer than climate scientists say is safe. The American West is getting a small taste of the consequences now. Manchin’s home state of West Virginia is also feeling the effects.

Manchin also did not mention why the timetable for climate action is so “aggressive” in the first place. To do that, he would have had to blame the people in the room.

EEI’s “two-faced” approach to climate change

Manchin made his comments at the annual conference of The Edison Electric Institute, a longstanding fixture in the world of climate deception. The powerful D.C.-based trade group for the electric utility industry has played a large role in popularizing climate denial and obstructing climate regulation over the last several decades, according to a comprehensive report from the Energy and Policy Institute.

EEI’s members were first warned of the climate risks of burning fossil fuels its 1968 Annual Convention, according to the report. Then, in the late 80s, it started playing both sides of the climate coin—publicly touting the need for aggressive climate action, while quietly funding efforts to prevent it.

One of those efforts was the Information Council on the Environment, which aimed to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Another was the Global Climate Coalition, a group that from 1989 to 2002 spearheaded an “aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming,” according to the New York Times. (EEI was an early member).

A 1991 ad published by the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) claimed there’s “no hard evidence” of climate change. Spearheaded by The Edison Electric Institute, ICE’s top goal was to  “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Source: Energy and Policy Institute.

Publicly, however, the group said it was committed to tackling climate change. The Energy and Policy Institute’s report described EEI’s “two-faced approach:”

During the 1990s and 2000s, EEI also encouraged electric utilities to support voluntary federal government initiatives aimed at reducing CO2.

However, EEI explicitly framed these voluntary efforts as a means to avoid mandatory legal limits on CO2 emissions. For example, EEI warned members that, “If we do not work now toward the goal of achieving voluntary GHG emissions reduction, we run the risk of facing stringent mandatory regimes...” …

Efforts like these allowed utilities to say they were doing something about the problem even as their CO2 emissions increased and their disinformation campaigns against climate science continued.

When efforts to regulate greenhouse gases did gain speed, EEI played a behind-the-scenes role in opposing them. Its president engaged in “ferocious lobbying” of the Bush White House, which eventually reversed its pledge to regulate greenhouse gases. It also continues to oppose climate efforts through its memberships in groups like the Utility Air Regulatory Group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

EEI also “helped to fund Trump’s transition to power, and one of the group’s top lobbyists landed a job as Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s chief of staff,” the report reads.

Manchin supporting EEI’s agenda today

Today, EEI is continuing its longstanding trend of talking out of both sides of its mouth. Though it publicly claims to support the Biden administration’s pledge to halve U.S. carbon emissions by 2030, EEI insists that natural gas—a fossil fuel and one of the biggest drivers of climate change—is a “clean” fuel that will be essential to achieving that goal.

This claim falls well outside the scientific mainstream. Last month, the U.N. released a major report that found the use of natural gas is not compatible with keeping warming to safe levels without “massive-scale deployment of unproven carbon removal technologies.” Another major report released last month by the International Energy Agency said that, to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, “No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in our pathway.”

Still, EEI has found a lot of support in Congress for this new iteration of climate denial—and not just among fossil fuel-backed Republicans. Indeed, Manchin went far beyond EEI’s climate talking points in his support for coal and a slower timetable for action. The indication is that he’ll be a far better tool for fossil fuels than key for climate action. But only votes will tell.

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