WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Biden’s choice to head the Department of Energy in a hearing that made it increasingly clear that the president’s climate change mitigation efforts must appease Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from coal mining West Virginia.
Manchin, the incoming chair of the committee, praised nominee Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, before the committee confirmed her 13-4. The confirmation vote is now set to move to the full Senate.
“She has the leadership skills, the vision and the compassion for the people we need at the helm of the Department of Energy to face the climate challenge and at the same time preserve our energy security,” Manchin said.
Senator John Barrasso, slated to be the top Republican on the committee, voted against Granholm’s nomination, saying that he cannot support her in light of Biden’s aggressive environmental agenda that will “throw tens of thousands of Americans out of work” and “crush Wyoming’s economy.”
Manchin and Barrasso have continually emphasized the need for innovation, rather than the elimination of jobs, during the clean energy transition.
“As our energy mix has changed, concern about the impacts on these traditional energy communities will remain front of mind for many of our members,” Manchin said Wednesday, referencing the fact that several committee members come from energy-producing states.
In Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, over 20,000 people work in coal, oil and gas.
“I will continue to work hard to ensure that those communities are given new opportunities to thrive,” Manchin continued.
Barrasso pointed to strategies like carbon capture and advanced nuclear reactors, calling the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions “a technology challenge.”
Both senators have praised Granholm’s commitment to carbon capture — a technology that traps carbon dioxide before it exits smokestacks, and a way to keep coal and gas fired power plants running while still lowering emissions.
Manchin is a long-time defender of his state’s fossil fuel industry. And as a centrist Democrat with a razor-thin majority in the Senate — and now the top lawmaker on energy — Manchin will be a key vote on the most ambitious climate plan in U.S. history.
Biden began his climate agenda with a series of executive orders that paused new drilling and fracking leases on federal lands, canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline, and brought America back into the Paris climate accord. He plans on pushing legislation that will put the United States on a path to 100% carbon free electricity by 2035 and zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — a plan that will have to pass through Congress and will cost $2 trillion over four years.
And though Biden has framed his climate agenda as a “jobs plan” focused on clean energy jobs, fossil fuel industries claim that it will cause economic fallout.
“The Biden administration is telling these oil rig, coal mine and well workers that they can simply get new jobs ‘building solar panels,’” Barrasso said at the committee hearing Wednesday. Barrasso said workers in the oil, gas and coal industry make $70,00 a year, while the average salary of a solar panel installer is $45,000.
“I can’t support a Biden administration agenda that throws my constituents out of work and kills the economies and communities in which they live,” Barrasso said.
Climate scientists warn meanwhile that our time is running out. Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of public policy and the environment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told committee members Wednesday that we need to get to zero emissions by 2050 for a chance of containing global temperature rise within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
Manchin held the first committee hearing of the new Congress Wednesday to hear from climate experts and set a baseline of global climate facts for the commission to build on.
“I’ve long said that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts,” Manchin said in his opening remarks. “Before hearing from our panel today, there is one fact I would like to serve as our starting point. And that is: climate change is real, and largely linked to human activity.”
Last year, Manchin helped to pass three bipartisan energy and public lands bills. He regularly crosses the aisle, has criticized Obama’s environmental policies and is likely the Democrats’ most fossil-fuel friendly senator.
Yet Manchin remains a key vote for Democrats. If there is no Republican support, Democrats will have to balance Manchin’s economic interests in order to pass comprehensive climate legislation.