Editorials, Opinion

Why the Legislature needs to be more pro-environment

Last week, the Sierra Club released its legislative scorecard for the 2021-22 sessions. The environmental group uses the scorecard to rate West Virginia legislators based on how they voted on climate- and environment-friendly policies. By the club’s own words, “Bills were chosen based on roll call votes where a clear pro-environment position was identified, and where at least 5% of the chamber voted in opposition … . Those votes were used to calculate a pro-environment percentage score, with 100% being perfect.”

Four out of five of Monongalia County’s current delegates were in the top 10 for pro-environment votes. Barbara Fleischauer, Evan Hansen and John Williams each received a 96% rating, meaning they took a pro-environment stance almost all the time. Danielle Walker received a 100% rating, which means she always took a pro-environment stance on contested bills.

Most of legislators who earned zeros on the Sierra Club’s scorecard are from the southern half of the state, including Mike Azinger, Mark Maynard and Eric Tarr.

It’s an interesting but unsurprising divide that shows the stark difference in West Virginia’s economies. Yes, “economies,” plural. Because what puts food on the table in one part of the state is very different from what brings home the bacon in another part.

Here in north-central West Virginia, we are lucky to buoyed by institutions of higher education, a couple of sprawling hospital systems, large retail parks and a technology corridor. Historically, the southern half of the state has had coal and, now, natural gas and chemical manufacturing. Our neighbors to the south survive on the energy industry.

The divide and the disconnect between pro-environment politics of the north and the pro-energy politics of the south is the mistaken belief that energy and environmentally friendly are mutually exclusive.

But they don’t have to be.

The southern half of West Virginia is riddled with geothermal hotspots — ones just ripe for commercial energy generation — particularly towards the Ohio River Valley. Geothermal is considered a renewable resource, as well as a green one. It may be the perfect alternative for an energy-dependent economy.

Even if lawmakers in the southern part of the state aren’t interested in letting go of fossil fuels, it would still behoove them to give more support to pro-environment policies.

If you drew a line from Parkersburg to Buckhannon to Petersburg and called everything below it southern West Virginia, you’d encompass an area that is home to 25 of West Virginia’s 45 state parks, numerous additional trails and state forests and West Virginia’s three nationally recognized parks and scenic areas.

Gov. Jim Justice and the entire Legislature made a big push this past year to make tourism a key part of the state’s economy — and the southern half of the state contains some of West Virginia’s biggest and most beautiful tourist attractions. In order for tourism to become a long-term economic driver, we must preserve the natural beauty that draws visitors in. And to do that, we must enact more environmentally friendly laws and more environmental protection policies.

When we look to the Sierra Club’s scorecard next year, we hope to see fewer legislators from the southern part of West Virginia with a zero by their names. It would be disappointing to see them continue to vote against their constituents’ interests.