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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Dust-Up in Coal Country

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is under fire from his Republican opponent, John Raese, for supposedly undermining the coal industry. Raese’s ad is misleading, though. Even the coal producers disagree with it.

The two are competing to fill the last two years of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd’s term.

Raese says that Manchin "passed a law that eliminates 25 percent of coal usage in our power plants." But that’s not true. The Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, which the governor signed in 2009, calls for 10 percent of the electricity generated by the plants to come from "alternative and renewable energy resources" by 2015, ramping up to 25 percent by 2025.

What counts as "alternative and renewable?" A variety of processes that fall under the rubric of "advanced coal technology," such as carbon capture-and-storage and advanced supercritical boilers. Electricity generated from waste coal as well as coal gasification and liquefaction qualifies too.

Is this a law that comes down hard on West Virginia’s coal industry and will lead to lost jobs? Has Manchin "thrown us under the bus," as Raese puts it in his ad? Not according to the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents most of the coal producers in the state.

"We don’t think it’s a hit at all," said Bill Raney, the group’s president, in an interview with FactCheck.org. For one thing, he said, the requirements only apply to electricity sold in-state, or about one-third of the power generated by the plants. In addition, according to Raney, there is already enough power being generated via these "alternative" processes by coal-burning plants to put them in compliance with the 2015 mandate. "When this bill was passed, we were there," he said. Three plants are currently burning waste coal, for instance, he noted.

And with a carbon capture-and-storage plant coming fully on line in the state soon and other plants beginning to use new technologies, "in the next three to five years we’ll have met the 2025 goal," Raney said. The key, Raney pointed out, is in the broad definition of "alternative."

Raese’s ad tries to characterize the West Virginia law as "cap-and-trade, West Virginia style." But it doesn’t have much in common with the cap-and-trade legislation that has been debated in Washington, which Raese is trying to tie to Manchin. Power plants would earn credits for electricity generated or purchased from alternative facilities, not for reduced emissions.

And Manchin has consistently criticized the Washington version of cap-and-trade. He said of a bill that was pending in the House last year:

Manchin, June 2009: If you inflict the pain that [Congress is] about to inflict without thinking this out, it will be devastating. And I hope that better, smarter, sharper, cooler heads will prevail. Right now, what I am seeing is the wrong way to go.

That was shortly after he signed a resolution making coal the West Virginia state rock. Earlier this year, he called for state lawmakers to pass a resolution slamming the federal effort.

All of this may help explain why, on Sept. 30, the coal association endorsed Manchin in the Senate race.  The United Mine Workers of America was already on board, apparently not fearful that miners’ jobs were at risk because of the law Manchin signed. The union president has even starred in an ad for the governor.

Raese may have to adopt a new approach.