Joe Manchin Will Be the Top Democrat on the Energy Committee

The pro-coal senator once shot a bullet through a cap-and-trade bill.

Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/ZUMA

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a list of committee assignments Tuesday that brought bad news for environmental activists: Joe Manchin, the pro-coal West Virginia senator who narrowly held onto his deep-red seat this November, will now be the highest-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In his new role, Manchin isn’t likely to be a strong advocate for reining in fossil fuel use to combat climate change; he once went so far as to shoot a bullet through Democrats’ failed cap-and-trade legislation in a campaign ad. While Manchin does say we “have the responsibility and capability to address” climate change, he has taken nearly $750,000 in donations from the mining industry and more than $419,000 from the oil and gas industry during his Senate campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The problems facing our country are serious, and I am committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find common sense solutions for long-term comprehensive energy policy that incorporates an all-of-the-above strategy and ensures our state and our nation are leaders in the energy future,” Manchin said in a statement on his promotion.

Energy and Natural Resources isn’t the primary committee dealing with climate change and environmental oversight (that would be Environment and Public Works) or comprehensive climate legislation (either EPW or Finance). But it still plays an important role in overseeing public lands, energy infrastructure, and the electrical grid. While strong climate action is a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Senate, the ranking member can set the agenda for messaging and investigations—duties that will become even more important if Democrats manage to take control of the chamber in 2020 and Manchin assumes the chairmanship.

Supporters of climate action aren’t happy about Manchin’s ascension.

“I have concerns, and that’s why I say that our issues are not just left and right, but that they’re top and down,” incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said at a press conference a few weeks ago outside the Capitol. “I have concerns over the senator’s chairmanship just because I do not believe that we should be financed by the industries that we are supposed to be legislating and regulating and touching with our legislation.”

Climate activist Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, tweeted: “Truly depressing, at a key moment in earth history, to see Joe Manchin take over as ranking member on the Energy Committee.” McKibben’s group was one of the climate advocacy groups targeting Schumer with protests in an attempt to convince him to disregard Senate tradition and choose someone else.

In a system where senators are promoted based on seniority, it’s relatively surprising that the eight-year senator was next in line for ranking member after Washington state’s Maria Cantwell, the current top Democrat, moved to replace departing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation panel.

Three other senators could have claimed the post, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), but they wanted to keep their ranking slots on the Finance and Agriculture committees, respectively. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, chose to keep his post as the ranking member of the Budget Committee. Sanders is a 2020 presidential hopeful who plans to stake out an aggressive position on climate change. At a recent town hall, he described global warming as an urgent problem. “This is a crisis situation,” he said. “It is unprecedented, and we’ve got to act in an unprecedented way.” His staff argues that the Budget Committee can play a key role in climate legislation through the reconciliation process, which could allow a future Democratic majority to avoid a Republican filibuster.

When Manchin’s elevation appeared inevitable late last month, advocacy groups and two prominent possible Democratic presidential candidates questioned the West Virginia senator’s commitment to a progressive environmental agenda.

Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who has made climate change a major plank of his likely 2020 bid, excoriated Manchin last week for backing “Donald Trump’s dirty energy agenda.”

In a statement following the senator’s promotion, Inslee said Manchin “cannot effectively lead our party’s energy policy.”

“Senator Manchin and I have spoken on this subject, and I expressed to him my expectation that now he and all Senate Democrats must hold the line against Donald Trump’s dangerous environmental policies,” Inslee added.

Billionaire megadonor Tom Steyer, who trailed only Sheldon Adelson and Michael Bloomberg among this election cycle’s top givers, had also called on Democrats to pursue “a bold, positive path forward” on climate change—one that pointedly does not include Manchin. “Senator Manchin does not offer that vision and should not be the Democratic leader on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,” Steyer said in a statement last week.

The intra-party feud has done little to undermine Manchin’s support among Senate Democrats. “He may be the ranking member, but he’s part of a team when it comes to issues of climate change, issues of the environment,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Politico last Thursday. “I have a lot of confidence I can work with him to fight for a far more aggressive agenda for dealing with the planetary crisis of global warming.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.