“If you care about the climate,
elimination is not the way to go.
That was Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.
Va., chairman of the Senate Energy and
Natural Resource Committee, at a forum
sponsored by General Electric and hosted
by the news website Axios on the eve
of President Joe Biden’s global climate
summit last month.
That the summit was held during Earth
Day was not a coincidence.
The forum, which also included as
guests, Southern Company Chairman,
President and CEO Thomas Fanning, and
GE Chairman and CEO
Larry Culp, was part of
the media company’s
series, which focuses
on politics and
efficiency and new
technologies in the
On that very subject of America at
the crossroads of a new energy frontier,
Manchin said, at the present, we are still torn
between what’s doable and what’s fanciful.
“We don’t have a practical approach, we
have an aspirational one,” he said.
And Manchin, whose state of West
Virginia is second only to Wyoming in
coal production, wants to underscore that
trying to do away with the energy source,
as many want to do, is economically
indefensible, environmentally precipitous
and linguistically lazy.
“It’s called global climate change, not
U.S. climate change,” Manchin said.
In West Virginia, according to the
state’s Office of Miners’ Health Safety
and Training office, coal occurs in 53 of
the state’s 55 counties, is responsible for
approximately 30,000 direct jobs, including
miners, contractors and coal preparation
employees, provides 99 percent of the
generated state electricity, and contributes
more than $3.5 billion annually in the
gross state product.
For Manchin, this fight is not just
personal – it’s territorial.
“You cannot eliminate the carbon we
have in our midst,” he said. “If you try to
eliminate fossil (fuels), it’s not going to
Manchin, who is seen as something of
a dealbreaker on the president’s new $2
trillion infrastructure bill – which includes
a number of energy provisions, said
he has always tried to look at the best
options available, even when it comes, for
instance, to the TransCanada Keystone
“I’m never an obstacle. The oil is
coming one way or another. I took a
practical approach on it,” he said, adding
that, specifically, as far as the Keystone XL
is concerned, “it’s safer than it coming on
trains or cars.”
That infrastructure bill, incidentally,
would include new spending on climate
change, including thousands more electric
vehicle charging stations, millions for new
energy-efficient homes, and help pave the
way for the president’s goal for carbonfree
power generation by 2035 and netzero
emissions by 2050.
Fossil fuels, Manchin maintains, can
be used in the most efficient and cleanest
way – and that should be the country’s
focus, he said.
Comparative Coal Consumption
And, in fact, it is, the senator said.
“If you believe we should be energy
independent, then we have to work in the
world of reality. Bottom line is we cleaned
up more than any other country. Our coal
plants are the cleanest,” said Manchin.
All of which brought the senator, during
the forum, to reiterate his opposition
to the Paris Climate Agreement, which
Biden joined within hours of taking the
oath of office on Jan. 20, and from
which President Donald Trump officially
withdrew as one of his last acts last
November. Biden has since promised
to cut greenhouse gas emissions at
least in half by the end of the decade
(or approximately 50 percent from 2005
levels), which is almost double the 26
to 28 percent target to which the nation
committed under Obama.
Manchin pointed to what he sees as
the agreement’s flaws.
“China shouldn’t be given a pass. It’s
not a developing nation. They have not
let up and they are the largest emitter of
greenhouse gasses,” said Manchin, adding
the accord has “No teeth.”
(At the virtual summit, to which
40 world leaders were invited and
participated, Canada, Japan, Great Britain,
and even Brazil all agreed to cut their
emissions by varying degrees. Chinese
President Xi Jinping promised his country
would “phase down” coal consumption
in the second half of this decade, which
environmentalists regarded as a welcome
development. In 2020, according to the
South China Morning Post’s “China Macro
Economy” page at SCMP.com, the country
produced 3.84 billion tons of coal, its
highest output since 2015, and 90 million
tons more than 2019. It also imported
another 304 million tons.)
In America, coal is trending in the
opposite direction. According to the U.S.
Energy Information Administration, since
2007, U.S. coal consumption has been
on the decline. In 2019, coal generation
was at a 42-year low, dropping by a
record 16 percent, and, exacerbated by
low energy prices due to COVID-19, fell
even further during the first half of 2020.
Renewable electricity output, by contrast,
rose 5 percent in the first half of 2020, and
natural-gas generation, which grew by 9
percent in the lower 48 states.
Fanning said Southern Company,
which is the second-largest utility
company in the United States, is all-in
on the importance of the coming energy
transition, promising, as well, to have netzero
emissions by 2050, if not sooner.
On coal, he was less sanguine about its
future than Manchin.
“Coal will be winding down along
the way. Coal was at 70 percent when I
started; 17 percent now,” he said.
CCUS is Key
One of the keys to future success,
Fanning said, is carbon capture,
utilization and storage and how fast
technology moves in that direction. On
this point, Manchin agreed, pointing
to the more than $35 billion dollars
allocated to CCUS and other related
research in last year’s energy bill that he
“We can do carbon capture
sequestration,” he said. “It is the thing
that needs to be done.”
“People have to remember that things
that are out of the mind today,” said
Fanning, referring to the technological
challenges, “will be in the mind tomorrow.
I think carbon capture is so important
because gas will not go away; therefore,
capturing whatever emissions come out
of it is necessary.”
General Electric’s Culp, too, said the
country should move quickly on carbon
elimination and invest in sustainable
“I’m excited to see the administration
organize the summit and hoping real
action will come,” he said.
Toward a ‘Coherent Energy Policy’
When asked if United States “has any
credibility left” in developing a worldwide
energy blueprint, considering that the Paris
Accords and Keystone XL, as two prime
examples, have been alternately rejected
and supported by incoming administrations,
Culp said he’s heartened by the new
“You can’t debate the commitment of this
administration. Business is a full partner and
what the world will see is a full-throated effort
to lead and a sustainable partner,” he said.
Like Fanning, Culp doesn’t believe there
will be a single silver bullet approach.
“We’re going to need gas, in combination
with renewables,” said Culp, bringing up the
promise of offshore wind generation, which
he believes will be “a great step forward.”
“Offshore wind makes a very big
difference,” he said.
And while acknowledging that Europe
was ahead of the United States in
developing this technology, he believes the
gap has been closing.
“We have taken important steps. Clearly,
we need to do a lot more, though, and have
some catching up to do,” said Culp.
A bright spot, he said, was GE’s
Haliade-X, the world’s most powerful
offshore wind turbine, located in Rotterdam-
Maasvlakte, in the Netherlands, which came
online last year. According to the company,
one rotation of the turbine, which stands at
a total height of 853 feet, could power a UK
household for more than two days.
Fanning, too, believes that whatever
the future looks like, there is no going at it
alone if we want to have a coherent national
energy policy, pointing to the fact that 80
percent of the country’s energy grid – more
than 7,300 power plants and transformers
and 450,000 miles of transmission lines – is
owned by the private sector.
“We’ll need all the help from the
administration and all the arrows in the
quiver, which means a big emphasis will
need to be placed on renewables, tax
incentives for hydrogen, as well as storage
technology. We all have to work together.
See the battlefield and react to it,” he said.
For his part, Manchin, talking about
both the infrastructure bill and the how
important it is for the country to get energy
“God help us if we can’t get together on
that,” he said.