Mon. Phillips rupeesR-Logan, made news recently for opposing state funding to attract Form Energy, a manufacturer of high-capacity energy storage batteries, to West Virginia, stating, “This is coal money that we’re giving to a woke company.”
That statement was interesting on many levels, including that, to Phillips’ mind, state tax dollars — the bill in question makes a supplemental appropriation of $105 million of surplus revenue to the state Department of Economic Development (House Bill 2882) — rightfully belongs to the coal industry.
Also, that a company developing green energy technologies by definition is “woke,” never mind that the batteries can store energy produced by all manner of power plants — including coal-fired plants.
While Phillips’ “woke” quote made the news, he also made the claim that renewable energy is low-cost only because of sizable federal subsidies.
Of course, that’s nonsense, echoing Donald Trump when he claimed that people who rely on solar energy can’t watch TV at night.
As the Gazette-Mail’s Mike Tony recently reported, a 2020 study by the investment banking firm Lazard found the cost of building and operating a new solar power facility is $10 to $16 less per megawatt hour than operating an existing coal-fired plant. (The savings for wind power facilities are comparable.)
Even America’s Power, the trade organization that promotes coal-fired power plants, in April 2020 called for an end to alternative energy subsidies, not because they give an unfair advantage to wind and solar power facilities, but because alternative energy not only has achieved a competitive balance with traditional energy sources, but that now “costs less to build and generate electricity from new wind and solar facilities … the wind and solar industries are mature and able to compete on equal footing with conventional sources of electricity.”
As Tony reported, state electric bills have effectively doubled since 2005, increasing at the second highest rate in the US, “as the state has clung to coal.”
Indeed, it is hysterical for Phillips to complain about alternative energy subsidies when, year after year, the Legislature bends over backwards to provide corporate welfare to a dying coal industry.
Phillips himself is lead sponsor of two bills this session to subsidize coal, including one to exempt coal sold to state power plants from severance taxes (SB 168), and one to provide coal mining operations and processing plants with 50% tax credit against severance taxes (SB 171). According to their fiscal notes, the two bills would amount to a total tax break of $94 million a year.
While SB 168 is moving in the Senate, the House version of SB 171 (HB 3133) is advancing in the House.
Meanwhile, Phillips cosponsored legislation that would require power companies to get permission from the Public Service Commission to decommission coal-fired power plants (SB 609), a bill aimed at preventing the imminent closure of the Pleasants Power Station — a plant that apparently cannot operate profitably even with the $12.5 million a year tax break legislators gave it in 2019. It passed the Senate Monday and is awaiting action in the House.
Given that the current composition of the three-member Public Service Commission includes a former coal industry lobbyist and a retired longtime president of the West Virginia Coal Association, one would think it would take a pretty emphatic case to get a majority vote for permission to shutter an antiquated coal-fired plant that can no longer operate profitably, like the Pleasants County facility.
Coal baron Gov. Jim Justice also weighed in on the plant, saying at his media-restricted, taxpayer-funded, showboating virtual briefing, “Someway, somehow, that plant has got to remain open, and it’s got to remain open as a coal-fired plant.”
One of the reasons to keep the plant open, Justice insisted, is because prices for steam coal have plunged from a high of nearly $400 a ton to just over $90 a ton, and his fellow coal barons are feeling pain in their pocketbooks.
“Our coal producers need that plant to run,” he said.
Borrowing a page from Phillips, Justice blamed “woke” power company stockholders for having the audacity to want to shutter (or refuse to purchase) an energy-inefficient power plant.
“It may be very, very left-wing shareholders,” Justice said, adding, “They could be from California to who knows where, and pushing back and pushing back in a climate change or ultra-green world.”
It reminds me of a page from history, when John D. Rockefeller led a public relations campaign warning people about a supposedly highly dangerous new power source, electricity, knowing that the burgeoning new energy would quickly eliminate demand for the kerosene that his Standard Oil Co. had a monopoly to produce to light lamps throughout the US
Of course, the campaign was futile, as people saw through the claims that electricity would kill them, but Rockefeller had the good fortune (pun intended) that at roughly the same time the country was being electrified, automobiles came into mass production, using what had been a worthless byproduct of kerosene production, gasoline, for fuel.
I have no doubt that, if Justice and our legislators were transported back to the 1890s and early 1900s, they would be doing everything they could to prop up the dying kerosene lamp industry and to put up roadblocks against the “woke” purveyors of electricity.
Meanwhile, the next time you’re paying your sky-high electric bill, you can thank the politicians whose fealty to King Coal blinds them to the realities of modern-day energy production.
The current legislative leadership didn’t invent stealthy backroom politics, but it seems they’re perfecting it.
Thus, we witnessed how the Senate version of the tax cut plan suddenly materialized out of thin air, and in the course of little more than six hours, with little debate and no public input or expert oversight, went from the Finance Committee to passage in the full Senate (SB 429).
However, we’ve since learned that in their haste to put the bill together, the authors of the mysterious tax cut plan made numerous boo-boos, including a defective bill title, which, if left uncorrected, would make the entire bill null and voids.
These great Senate minds also managed to make numerous typographical, numbering and lettering errors, and because of their ham-fisted approach to bill drafting, inadvertently made the tax credits enumerated in the bill applying only to the 2024 tax year.
(Back in the day, if a committee counsel had done such an abhorrent job of bill drafting, he or she would have been immediately and unceremoniously booted out of the Capitol.)
Likewise, although legislators have been aware of the real problems facing PEIA, the health coverage for the public and public school employees, since before the session began, the matter got little attention for the first 41 days of the session, only to have Senate Finance advance a 54-page bill making substantial changes to PEIA after all of 15 minutes of deliberation — with time left over in that quarter-hour span to pass three other bills.
Given that the bill features employee premium increases of between 14% and 25%, one might have thought that just a little more debate, a little more public input and a little more expert testimony might have been warranted.
Then again, this is the same Senate that flaunted the legislative process with the rapid-fire passage of 23 bills on the first day of the session.
With the regular session down to its final two weeks, we will undoubtedly soon see a compromise tax cut bill suddenly materialize out of nowhere, again with no input from the public or from experts in fiscal policy. (And probably with its share of typos and technical errors.)
This level of backroom shenanigans is made possible by Republican super-supermajorities in the House and Senate, with the vast majority of members being able to get up to speed on the bills in closed-door party caucuses.
However, that doesn’t help members of the public, the media, the affected parties, and the loyal opposition who are left in the dark in this unaccountable, opaque process.
And, as we see from the Senate’s ungodly blundered-up tax cut bill, operating in darkness also frequently produces less than stellar legislative results.
Finally, I remember well the day on the Senate floor when Sen. Donna BoleyR-Pleasants, complained that her “no” vote had not been recorded, stating that her red vote button didn’t work.
Former Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, didn’t miss a beat, responding, “You can have mine. I’ve never used it.”
The inference being that no bill that Tomblin personally opposed ever made it to the Senate floor.
I was reminded of that moment when House Speaker Roger HanshawR-Clay, joined one other Republican and 11 Democrats in voting against the campus carry bill (SB 10), a rare case of a House speaker bucking leadership on a passage vote.
It is commendable that Hanshaw voted his conscience, potentially at the risk of alienating gun-loving constituents back home in Clay County.
However, it is unfortunate that Hanshaw’s standing as speaker is so shaky, at least in comparison to Tomblin’s Senate presidency, that he has limited ability to function as a gatekeeper of unnecessary legislation, and it’s also unfortunate that the speaker, who has both a law degree and a Ph.D. in chemistry, could not persuade his less-educated colleagues that large majorities of students, faculty, staff and administrators of state colleges and universities neither want nor need firearms on campus.