Curtis Tate Published

Manchin On His Senate Retirement And America’s Energy Future

Sen. Joe Manchin and Bill Gates, both wearing yellow hard hats, toured the closed Kanawha River power plant in Glasgow. Both are seen in a space with some old, decommissioned power plant machinery.
Sen. Joe Manchin with Bill Gates.
Sen. Manchin's Office

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin announced his retirement from the Senate last month. Curtis Tate spoke with Manchin Wednesday about that decision, what he wants to do next and what he accomplished during his time in office.

Manchin also spoke about U.S. energy policy and electricity prices in West Virginia. Manchin is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has had a prominent role in shaping national energy policy in recent years.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tate: You said when you announced your retirement from the Senate that you’d accomplished what you set out to do for West Virginia? Could you name maybe three of those things?

Manchin: Oh, I could. I mean, there’s so many things we’ve done there. But let me just give you some things that we passed in West Virginia. First of all, we got the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Next, we had the ARCH hub hydrogen hub. That’s your major turning points for us, the hydrogen. The MVP is going to create a lot of opportunity. We’re producing an awful lot of gas, there’s going to be an awful lot of opportunity to the industry coming. With the Inflation Reduction Act that we passed to help West Virginia, we got Form Energy up in the Weirton area that’s going to be producing tremendous amounts of battery storage. We have Nucor Steel coming along the Ohio River, Mason County. The opportunities continue to keep coming. We’ve got another hydrogen plant going on in Mingo County, down in southern West Virginia. It’s Adams Fork, using methane coming off the coal seams and turning it into hydrogen. 

So we have put ourselves in a position to transition as the country and the world is changing. And we’ve got to be carbon conscious. But the bottom line is we’re producing more fossil (fuel) today cleaner and better than anywhere in the world. So we reduced our emissions for the last two decades. And then during that one of the things I’m most proud of, I was able to fight like the dickens and we were able to get the miners of West Virginia and all across the country – coal miners – their lifetime pensions and their lifetime health care benefits that they were promised and were going to be robbed from. We got that into law. Now, it’ll never happen.

Tate: What does American energy security look like in 2030, 2040, 2050?

Manchin: You can’t eliminate but you can innovate. If we create the technology and show them how, if you’re going to use carbon, if you’re going to use fossil, are you capturing the carbon, so you don’t emit it? If you’re producing natural gas, are you capturing the methane so it doesn’t escape in the atmosphere, which is very, very harmful? Are we doing everything we can by innovating technology? And then entice the other countries and say, “Well, you can’t tell me what to do and what I can do, I can burn anything I want, I can do it any way I want to do it.” OK, you’re a sovereign country, we don’t have jurisdiction over you. But if you want to compete in our market, if you want to be part of the greatest economy, and the greatest economic market in the world, the United States, then these are our conditions. And you can’t do something that’s not feasible. It’s not reasonable. Perfect example, they tried to make us do things before, the technology was never there. We never perfected carbon capture, we couldn’t do it in a feasible way. And then they basically said “the war on coal,” they were putting benchmarks and if you use coal, this is what you had to do. But there was no way to get to those benchmarks, because the technology wasn’t there. So that’s what has happened in the past. That’s what we’re preventing now. 

We’re going to make sure we have the technology that we can remove and limit and basically undo an awful lot of the damage that has been done and still have the fossil energy that we need and still have the renewable. To give you another perfect example, Curtis, you have coal-fired plants around the country. And even in West Virginia, they’re closed down, they get old and timed out. No one’s building new ones. I think we all agree to that. And the United States, those coal-fired plants that have burned that have shut down, are in a perfect position for small modular reactors (SMR). These are new technologies of nuclear, nuclear energy, that are safe. That’s basically dispatchable. We can put it in those areas that we had coal fired plants, because all the switch gears are right there. It’s almost like a plug and play. And it keeps the vitality of those communities. It has revenue and has jobs. That’s what we’re looking for.

Tate: Is that something though, that can help lower the cost of electricity for West Virginians?

Manchin: Well, we’ve got to that’s where the federal government comes in. We’ve got to make sure everything that you have, whether it’s internet, or anything modern, today’s modern society, usually came through our energy labs. We have 17 labs around the country. And those labs are kind of experimental. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and all the different things from the internet, all the way up to AI and everything they’re talking about. We can and we will be able to do that. But we’ve got to get those costs down. The demand for fossil fuel is what’s driving the cost of gasoline, it’s driving the cost of energy that we use in our house. Because of the demand for coal, coal prices are higher. Today, we’re producing 5 percent more coal than we did last year in West Virginia, we’re paying higher prices than we’ve ever paid in the history of our country for coal, to have thermal coal and also for steelmaking. But the rest of the world has such an appetite, they’re driving the price of this up. So we have to have other alternative energy to drive it down. And that’s what we’re trying to do to give you more options. Wind and solar is your cheapest, but you know what, it’s intermittent power. It doesn’t give you 24/7 reliability.

Tate: But those batteries that you mentioned that Form Energy is going to build. Those can can help fill the void, can’t they?

Manchin: They sure can, Curtis. We don’t have the battery storage right now that we can give you 24/7 energy that’s produced only six or seven hours a day. When we get to that point, we’re trying very hard, but also with SMRs, these micro reactors. There’s so many things that we can do there. Another up in Ravenswood, the old Ravenswood plant. We have that’s where we –  I’m trying to think how they describe that. But it’s a new power grid that’s all renewable. And it’s used basically for all the industry in that area is going to be there. And it’s done by Berkshire Hathaway. So it’s a tremendous opportunity there. This is going to revolutionize how we use energy for manufacturing and things of that sort. But right now, it’s ridiculous. I was in this conversation yesterday. When I was governor, we were paying around eight, nine cents a kilowatt hour for residential, five, and six cents for commercial because our coal fired energy has always been an advantage for us for manufacturing, to have reliable, stable power. Dependable, reliable and affordable. Now the price is 14 cents. 

Tate: People who retire from Congress, they go on to become lobbyists, they might be university presidents or serving in Cabinet posts or ambassadorships, corporate boards. Are any of those things on the table for you next?

Manchin: I haven’t looked at anything. And I haven’t thought about any of that, because I’ve still got a heck of a job to do for the next 13 months. And I’ve been working my tail off on that one. There’s a lot of things I want to accomplish. And I have a great staff and they’re fighting like the dickens. No one’s giving up. We’re basically going to give it every week, everything we have for the last man to the last day. And that would be early January of 2025. So but I’m more concerned about my country than ever before. And you hear me talk about it all the time. People say, “Oh, you’re gonna run for president,” this and that. And I said, let me just tell you something. I don’t have a burning desire to run for president. But I do have an overwhelming burning desire to save our country. And if I can get people understanding that the political process that we live in today in America has been weaponized. 

That means if you’re on one side, the other side has to be your enemy. And you have to villainize the other side, to create the fervor you need in order to beat them or defeat them. We’re not the enemy, a Democrat and Republican, we are not enemies and should not be. We might be competitors with different ideas of how to fix the same problem. But we’re on the same side. That’s America side. They’re losing that because Washington is making you pick a side. What side are you on Curtis? And you figure you got to pick? Well, I’m not crazy about either one, but I think I would relate more to this than that. Then you push clear to the left or the right. That middle has been evaporating and gone. There’s no place. I think there’s more people today that are unsatisfied with the opportunities and assistance that’s going to be provided for them for the next election. And what we’re going to do is see if there’s enough good people out there that want to re-engage. That’s it.

Tate: No other Democrat currently holds statewide office in West Virginia. Do you have somebody in mind to run as your successor and do you plan to endorse anyone?

Manchin: Well, I haven’t gotten into that because I just made the decision late. The Democrats have one outstanding, I mean, truly an outstanding leader in (Huntington Mayor) Steve Williams running for governor. I’ve known Steve for many, many years. I was in the legislature with him, and I’ve watched him perform and those difficult challenging times in Huntington, and how he’s been able to turn that around the whole economy, that whole vibrancy of that area. So he’s going to be a tremendous worthy opponent, a candidate, I think that most West Virginians could rally around, someone with that stature in that experience level. I really believe that, as far as on my side, the Senate side, haven’t gotten there yet. We’ll look and see if there’s an independent if there’s basically a Democrat, or who we think it’d be best for the state. I would like people to look not at the identity of what party they belong to. But basically, the content and the content of what the person is and what they’re about, and what type of experience level they’ve had. What’s your temperament? You know, if you’re looking at basically trying to find an enemy, rather than trying to find a solution? You’re not going to be very helpful for the people in West Virginia.

Tate: How much was your family involved in your decision to not seek reelection? And especially your wife, Gayle?

Manchin: She’s my Bellwether. She’s my confidant. And we talked about all of this. I started 1982. So what, 42 years, I’ve been my public service, I think it was a calling when I got involved. And my family has sacrificed an awful lot. But the people have been so absolutely wonderful, supportive and generous and kind. And working with me. I couldn’t ever do anything by myself. But I knew as West Virginians, if we were working towards a goal, we could achieve it. And we’ve done an awful lot together, whether it’s as Secretary of State, and we had the SHARES program, saving history and reaching every student, we got young people involved, and how important it was. A 17 year old, if they turn 18 before the election day, they’re able to vote in a primary when they’re 17. People never knew these things. So we got them involved. 

We changed the whole process of how we did corporations, streamlining that making it easier for businesses to do business in West Virginia. And then as governor, I think we moved to a whole ‘nother level. We had mine safety coming in, we had basically, the value of a human being is irreplaceable, and you can’t put a price on it. So we did everything to keep them safe. We had horrible mine tragedies, we stuck together. And we created opportunities. We came through the downturn in 2008 and 2009. And the federal government wasn’t sending out billions and billions of dollars of assets and help and money to states back then like they are now. 

Over $10 billion has come to the state of West Virginia during COVID. And now I hope they have themselves in position to be able to live within their means. So my family had a tremendous amount. I want to spend a little more time with them. I have two younger grandchildren, two identical seven-year-old boys out in Houston. And I have a little granddaughter out in Houston who is 10. Those are my youngest, the rest of my 10 grandchildren, the other seven are pretty much grown. And I’ve missed an awful lot. And I don’t want to miss a whole lot more.