Over the course of his decade in the Senate, it’s no secret that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has been an ardent supporter of fossil fuels. The barely-blue-dog-Democrat is now almost singlehandedly responsible for holding up progress on the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, as he pushes for major changes to the way the bill would put the country on a path to cleaner energy by 2030.
But while the West Virginia senator’s ties to coal and oil are open and obvious, they’re not the only polluters who have helped keep Manchin in power. The utility industry—specifically utilities that rely on fossil fuels—has been a little-examined major funder behind Manchin’s career, and he’s executing some of their big wish list items when it comes to this bill.
Per OpenSecrets, over Joe Manchin’s entire career, utilities have been his seventh-largest overall donor by industry, trailing just behind the oil and gas industry (oil interests have given Manchin $670,945, while utilities have given $647,452). Manchin is, in fact, the second-largest recipient of utility money in the Senate thus far for the 2022 election cycle (Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the top slot).
The reconciliation bill has a powerful tool to decarbonize utilities known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP. That section of the package defines what counts as clean energy and sets up a system to get utilities to decarbonize at a pace that would help the country meet President Joe Biden’s stated goals to get to 80% carbon-free energy by 2030. Some utilities, like PSEG, have publicly supported the proposal, which would reward utilities financially for cleaning up their power mix. But some of Manchin’s biggest donors are fighting the proposal.
American Electric Power a huge investor-owned utility that provides services in 11 states, including West Virginia, has come out swinging as the loudest utility voicing concerns about the bill. While AEP’s website claims that climate change is “a key issue” for the company, the utility sent a letter to lawmakers in September complaining that the CEPP would make utilities switch off dirty fuels far too fast. (It’s worth noting AEP has a history, along with other utilities, of promoting climate denial, and was a member of ALEC until 2016.)
Between 2010 and 2014, AEP’s PAC gave $70,000 to Manchin’s PAC, FEC data shows. Nick Akins, the utility’s CEO, also has a special relationship with Manchin. As the New York Times reported in September, Manchin and Akins are buds: They have each others’ personal cell phone numbers and Manchin, per the Times, is “listening closely” to what Akins has to say on the bill. Akins told the paper that he thinks utilities are being made to move off fossil fuels way too fast. He argued that the federal government shouldn’t punish companies that don’t clean up their acts, instead letting them take their sweet time getting there.
In the past, Akins has backed up his buddy with financial support from his own pocket. Manchin was elected in a special election in 2010, and faced reelection in 2012. In 2010 and 2011, Akins personally gave a combined $3,500 to Manchin’s election PAC. (Several other AEP employees, including chairman Michael Morris, also gave to Manchin during this time.)
Manchin and Akins, in fact, are such pals that the CEO interviewed the senator in June at a conference put on by the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry’s top lobbying arm (and, along with AEP and other utilities, a big historic perpetrator of climate denial). The conference was named “The Road To Net Zero,” yet Manchin took the opportunity during his remarks to prop up coal and cast doubt on Biden’s timeline for getting off fossil fuels. Akins introduced Manchin to the crowd as “no more important person, not just for our country, but for our industry.”
AEP isn’t Manchin’s only supporter who is pushing for the bill to go easier on dirty utilities. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an organization that represents 900 smaller electric co-ops across the country, has also voiced opposition to the CEPP. That group’s PAC donated $25,000 to Manchin’s PAC between 2010 and 2017. The American Public Power Association, another utility industry group that has come out against the CEPP, gave twice to Manchin in 2010 and 2015 for a total of $1,750.
Other donations show how the coal and mining industries, historically one of Manchin’s top supporters and loudest supporters, can unite with smaller utilities for similar goals in defeating larger clean energy initiatives. America’s Power, a coalition of rural utilities, railroads, and coal interests, sent a letter to lawmakers in September decrying how the CEPP would eliminate coal by 2030, claiming that coal “will be needed for the foreseeable future.” Michelle Bloodworth, the group’s president, also justified continued U.S. coal use in the letter because “China’s coal fleet continues to grow.” (Eight days later, China announced it would no longer fund coal-fired power abroad, inching closer to winding down plants at home.)
FEC data shows that at least one of the group’s members, mining company Peabody Energy, gave Manchin’s PAC $15,500 between 2010 and 2017. (Manchin earned more than $5 million in dividends last year from a coal company he founded back in the 1980s, so he has a vested interest in utilities continuing to use coal.)
Even what seems like support for the Build Back Better from some industry groups can come with strings that tie back to dirty fuels. When asked about the bill by E&E News in September, EEI said it supported what it called a “well-designed” clean energy standard—which, according to the lobbying group, included lots of room for natural gas in the energy mix leading up to 2030. Manchin has been echoed that, aggressively pushing for natural gas to have a larger role in the clean energy program and saying it “has to be” included. The group also told the Financial Times that the CEPP timeline was challenging” and “arbitrary,” though analyses have shown the timeline gives the world a 50-50 shot at meeting the Paris Agreement and may not be aggressive enough. EEI gave Manchin’s PAC $15,500 between 2010 and 2018.
Some of Manchin’s other major dirty donors, including utilities like FirstEnergy, have thus far stayed publicly quiet about the bill. But that doesn’t mean they’re not working behind the scenes to sway decisions one way or the other. And as we’ve consistently seen in recent years, utilities can be make-or-break actors when it comes to energy policy; after all, there’s no use for a politician like Manchin creating lifelines for coal if there are no power plants that want to buy it. Given these companies’ histories in using donations for political gain and silencing opposition, as well as how we’re seeing their wishes come true on the Hill right now, it’s perhaps time to put them under the same sort of scrutiny we reserve for other dirty industries.