FARMINGTON, W.Va.—A U.S. senator born and raised in a small coal-mining town will have a big say in the future of electric vehicles.
With an evenly split Senate, centrist Democrats are in position to steer President Biden's plans to build up infrastructure and combat climate change through the chamber. Expect Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia with a decade of Senate experience, to have a moderating influence on the president's ambitious clean-energy goals.
Manchin, 73, chairman of a key committee and the former governor of a state that twice voted for former President Donald Trump, is determined to protect communities in West Virginia amid a global transition to renewable energy.
"I'm an all-in energy person," Manchin said last week during the American Council on Renewable Energy's virtual policy forum. "You can't leave any of these communities from traditional fuel sources behind."
Manchin, a Farmington native, was unavailable last week for an interview with Automotive News.
For an auto industry looking to Washington to help accelerate the adoption of EVs, gaining Manchin's support on key issues means taking into account those rural areas that have suffered from a decline in traditional energy sector jobs, several policy experts say.
When auto makers make headlines for setting goals to electrify their lineups and become carbon neutral, Manchin is thinking, "How can West Virginia benefit from this?" according to Mark Rom, an associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.
"That's what the car industry needs to know: If you want to get Joe's vote ... what's in it for him and the state of West Virginia?" Rom told Automotive News.
Energy looms large in West Virginia—the second-largest coal producer in the U.S., after Wyoming, and a state that has faced "deep, deep challenges" in recent decades, said Barry Rabe, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. The coal industry has suffered in large part by the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which pushed down the price of energy across the board.
"A big part of what they maintain in their economy has been energy production, and that's been coal, oil and natural gas," Rabe said. "It's pretty hard if you're going to be representing a state like West Virginia that you get way out ahead ... on anything that would challenge the dominance of fossil fuels."
Manchin's position as the pivot point for many votes—particularly on energy and the environment—gives him "unusual clout," Rabe said.
"If you look at his record over the last decade, Manchin is someone who may well be likely to break from majority Democratic voting sentiments," he said. "He's got a voting record overall that looks more Republican than any other Democratic senator."
Now that Congress has passed Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, law makers in the coming months will turn to the president's infrastructure, climate and energy agenda.
Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion Build Back Better plan that would put the U.S. on an "irreversible path" to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. It also includes efforts to modernize infrastructure, such as building at least 500,000 EV charging stations nationwide.
The White House said details of the agenda are being finalized.
Manchin, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has said he won't support passing the president's next big package through reconciliation, or a simple majority.
"He wants to get 60 votes. He wants to get 10 Republicans to come across," said Christian Renaud, research director at S&P Global's 451 Research. "He's ready to make concessions on this gigantic, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and energy bill."
But Manchin is just "one of the linchpins to getting any legislation passed," and several moderate Democratic senators such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also will be key votes, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"His power has increased, but so has every other centrist," she said.
Manchin also walks a "very tricky tightrope" of knowing climate policy and transportation infrastructure are going to look markedly different in the future, Renaud said, but any transition should come gradually and be industry-inclusive.
"Coal workers and coal mines are going to need help making that transition, and therefore, policy and regulation and new bills should have consideration for that," he said.
That approach is evident in a bill Manchin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow introduced this month. The American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act would incentivize U.S. manufacturers to retool, expand or build facilities to produce clean-energy parts or technologies such as EVs, batteries and semiconductor chips.
Half of the $8 billion funding would go to projects in regions where coal mines or coal power plants have closed—a provision where Manchin's influence is obvious, as the senator has a history of looking for ways to get federal funding or tax support to either rehabilitate declining West Virginia industries or "start anew," said Brookings' Rabe.
Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, called it "a great partnership."
"He and I both agreed we wanted to have a bigger tax credit, more opportunities, and he was wanting very much to target part of that specifically to states like his that have been coal-producing and other fossil fuel-producing states who are in transition right now," she told Automotive News.
Stabenow expects the legislation to be part of a larger bill on clean-energy manufacturing.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents most major auto makers in the U.S., supports the legislation and said it is committed to working with "all stakeholders on crucial issues advancing cleaner, safer, smarter transportation."
"We're all determined to work collaboratively to reduce emissions, enhance safety and accelerate the transition to net-zero carbon transportation and an electric-drive future," said Don Stewart, the association's executive vice president of public affairs.
Stabenow said Manchin has been "very supportive" of the charging infrastructure needed to support the auto industry's electrification goals.
Georgetown University's Rom also said the industry's move to EVs is likely to be supported by Manchin—especially if they're charged by coal-fired power plants.
"The car industry is going to be able to find an ally in Sen. Manchin," Rom said. "He's not ideological. It's, 'How can I benefit my people (of West Virginia)?' If the auto industry figures that out, they'll get his vote."