Sen. Joe Manchin pressured a top Energy Department official on Thursday to expand markets for coal waste, a high-polluting energy source that has earned Manchin’s family millions of dollars.
At a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the West Virginia Democrat pressed Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk on why the Biden administration hasn’t used more federal money to help commercialize new uses for coal waste. Also known as gob, the toxic byproduct of mining is a mix of coal, rock and other material.
Over three decades, Manchin has built a lucrative business called Enersystems Inc., that supplies gob to the last power plant in West Virginia that burns it. In 2021, Manchin earned more than $500,000 from that company, according to his financial disclosures, which values Manchin’s stake in the firm at up to $5 million. (The senator has said the company is operated by his son and held in a blind trust.)
Asked after Thursday’s hearing about advocating for a fuel that personally profits him, Manchin said that he’s been working with coal waste since the 1990s. That work, he asserted, converted an an environmental hazard into something that can help remediate the acidic runoff from coal mines.
“I mean, I live in coal country, so if you don’t work in coal country, you don’t work in West Virginia, usually. I can tell you, 50 out of 55 counties — it’s just our way of life, OK?” Manchin told reporters.
As the Senate Energy chair, Manchin has used his influence to add hundreds of millions of dollars for minerals research to bipartisan infrastructure legislation — with a focus on coal waste that has boosted the coal industry. Ethics experts say that has created an apparent conflict of interest (Climatewire, April 4, 2022).
On Thursday, Manchin continued in that effort. After accusing the Biden administration of undercutting fossil fuels, he said the Energy Department was dragging its feet specifically on programs to demonstrate coal waste’s potential beyond burning it for energy.
Coal waste could produce graphite and rare earth elements for batteries, he said, “in more sustainable ways than the traditional methods being used today.”
“It’s already been mined, you don’t have to do anything, just clean it up,” he said.
Coal, he continued, “has so many values to it, not just for burning.” He accused the administration of ending “some promising projects” because “they want to eliminate [coal].”
“This administration continues to wage war on coal,” he said. “They can say what they want to — I’m from coal country, so I know what’s happening,”
Manchin urged Turk to help commercialize coal waste by using funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the CHIPS Act, which is aimed at boosting domestic manufacturing of semiconductors.
“Are you going to ensure that funding from the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS Act will be used, rather than just basically saying you’re not going to do it?” Manchin asked Turk.
The deputy secretary responded that “a whole team” at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, part of the department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, was already working on on coal waste options.
“What I’m told is we have four smaller pilot projects out there, and there’s plans to try and build from that,” Turk said, adding that he’d be “happy to talk further with you and your staff to make sure we’re going forward in a way that makes sense.”
Manchin said he would be talking about the issue with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the White House.
The Grant Town power plant that burns Manchin’s coal waste has struggled financially for many years and has been on the verge of shutting down a number of times. For more than three decades, Manchin has used the levers of government to protect the money-losing plant and keep it operating. Over five years, that cost ratepayers an extra $117 million, E&E News has reported (Climatewire, Nov. 17, 2021).
Manchin’s company makes money hauling coal ash to the Grant Town power plant and then hauling the ash away and spreading it back on mine land. Coal ash is applied to abandoned mine lands and can absorb some of the acid mine runoff. However, the ash also contains heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, that can leach into water supplies.
Environmental groups have been calling for coal ash regulations that would classify the material as a hazardous waste and create more rigorous requirements for storing and transporting the ash. It would also increase costs on businesses that move the substance.
Manchin has opposed more stringent coal ash regulations.
Efforts to develop new markets for coal waste are already underway in West Virginia. Omnis Sublimation Recovery Technologies is spending $60 million to build a facility to extract rare-earth elements from coal waste in Wyoming County, in the heart of the state’s southern coal fields. It’s expected to open in mid-2023.
Reporter Scott Waldman contributed.