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West Virginians grapple with the future of the state’s energy production

MORGANTOWN – Mason Anderson is a 21-year-old contracted worker at Mobile Power Washing who works at the coal-fired Fort Martin power plant in Maidsville, West Virginia. Last year, he decided he wasn’t going to continue his education at West Virginia University in civil engineering. Instead, he decided to attend asynchronous courses at Salem University and work full time at the plant. 

“As soon as I figured out that civil engineering was setting me up for a different career path than I was looking for,” Anderson said, “I knew I needed to change something, and I still wanted a degree, so I ended up going with a business management degree with an engineering management specialization.” 

Anderson, like generations of workers before him, was drawn to the physical work involved in working in the coal industry, and he doesn’t mind the long shifts. Working in the industry provided stability and lucrative pay, but stories like Anderson’s are harder to come by today. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), West Virginia lost more than 50,000 coal mining jobs in the past decade. Additionally, statewide West Virginia has produced half the amount of coal that was produced just a decade ago. 

The source of this decline is more complicated than a single policy or initiative. Natural gas is becoming cheaper and cleaner to produce making it a chief market competitor to coal. Nationwide, states and municipalities have instituted policies to transition away from fossil fuels leading to a decreased demand for coal. Regulations concerning worker safety and the environment, while necessary, have also contributed to the decline in coal jobs. 

However, people are divided about how to best help communities that have been hurt by the decline of coal. Senator Manchin has advocated for the continued use of fossil fuels while researchers develop efficient carbon capture techniques. Meanwhile, in late April the UMWA endorsed President Biden’s plan to transition union workers to new renewable energy jobs. Also at the end of April, Governor Jim Justice signed a bill requiring solar and wind companies to pay to remove obsolete equipment that critics say would deter investments in solar and wind.

Sen. Rupie Phillips Jr., R-Logan, introduced legislation during the 2021 session that encourages coal fired power plants to remain open. The legislation requires them to have a 30-day base supply of coal on site. It also asks plants to work with the state to find a buyer for the plant rather than shut it down. Advocates of this legislation believe that by supporting the industry legislators are encouraging companies to remain open. 

“We don’t want to shut her down, tear her down, because once you tear it down it’s gone,” Phillips said. 

Only 11 legislators voted against the bill that the Governor signed on April 28. Delegate Evan Hansen D-Monongalia was one. He noted that the bill doesn’t do anything different than what coal-fired power plants are already doing. This bill only codifies their actions. He also voted against the bill because the Senate refused to take a vote on his proposed amendment to the bill establishing a committee to revitalize coal communities.

“It was so watered down it had very little meaning,” said Delegate Barbra Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who also voted against Senate Bill 542. 

Some say trying to encourage the coal industry in this way will leave West Virginians empty handed if the industry disappears. Sean O’Leary, a Senior Policy Analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy suggests investments in clean energy instead.

 “Do we enact some sort of policy? Do we pursue these things? Do we invest and have West Virginia play a role in that, or do we not and continue down the path of declining coal and declining natural gas,” O’Leary asked.

At the national level the Biden administration has announced its goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. According to the Energy Information Administration West Virginia ranked third highest in emissions per capita across the country in 2016. To reach net zero emissions West Virginia’s energy industries will need to adopt new technologies to keep up with changing demands. That includes research and development into carbon capture and sequestration.

In March, U.S. Senators Shelly Moore Capito and Joe Manchin introduced legislation in the Senate that would expand tax credits for those who invest in carbon capture projects. Senator Joe Manchin has come out in support of what he calls an “all of the above” approach to energy policy. He believes that fossil fuels will continue to have a large role in America’s energy sector for many years. 

When speaking about carbon capture, State Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion said, “I think that is the answer to the continued use of burning, ‘burning,’(emphasis Caputo’s) fossil fuels. I’m not talking about alternative uses for fossil fuels.”

Dr. Debangsu Bhattacharyya, a chemical engineering professor at West Virginia University, is researching how to apply current carbon capture technology at an industrial scale. “If you spend millions of dollars of federal funding, private funding or combined,” Bhattacharyya said, “it could cost a lot of money before we realize that some technology has some issues.”

Bhattacharyya still believes that we are a ways away from achieving net zero emissions. He views the reliability of using renewables like solar and wind in West Virginia as the main obstacle. When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing people will still need electricity, and the technology required to store renewable energy is still in its early phases. 

“If you think about coal fired or natural gas fired combustion cycles they are very reliable,” Bhattacharyya said. “They have been tested for decades actually, so if you put in the back end, the carbon capture, even though it adds to the cost of it, the electricity will be available reliably.” 

Ultimately, Bhattacharyya said the private sector’s ability to apply carbon capture technology will depend on how much people are willing to invest in this technology. According to a study published in December 2019 there are only 10 industrial carbon capture facilities in the country, and an additional nine sites worldwide. 

What’s often lost in conversations about West Virginia’s energy policies is the human impact of the declining industry that is responsible for the livelihoods of so many people. Caputo spent more than four decades working in the industry where he started out as a mine employee and eventually became Vice President of the UMWA International in his district.  

“I raised two kids, we always had a good wage, we could always afford a roof over our head, and food on the table and they all had healthcare,” Caputo said. 

Anderson is now starting out in the coal industry, and while he remains uncertain about his future he’s still excited about the opportunity. 

“I’m not sure what career path I would go on if I ever did lose my job here,” Anderson said. “I do plan on staying as long as I can.”

Beshay Sakla is a student in the WVU Reed College of Media. This article was written as part of the multimedia storytelling capstone class and offered to The Dominion Post for publication.