Joe Manchin made millions with coal. He’s also at the center of the US energy policy debate as Democrats scramble for a deal

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Manchin, whose vote is crucial to passing President Joe Biden’s domestic policy priorities in an equally divided 50-50 Senate, has stakes valued between $ 1 million and $ 5 million in Enersystems, Inc., the firm of coal brokerage that he founded, according to his most recent financial disclosure form that covers the 2020 business.

And last year, he earned more than $ 491,000 from his Enersystems holdings, according to records. This is more than double his annual Senate salary of $ 174,000.

“Manchin is a walking conflict of interest,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “And what makes him all the more disturbing is that he is the 50th Democratic senator, which gives him enormous influence on climate change policy.”

But the debate over Manchin’s coal interests also highlights what critics say are lax congressional ethics rules that give federal lawmakers wide leeway to regulate industries in which they have financial interests. In addition to his central role in the vast domestic policy bill, Manchin helps shape U.S. energy policy as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He has been on the panel since entering the Senate in November 2010, after winning a special election to replace the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

The rules of Congress also allow federal lawmakers to trade individual stocks, as long as they disclose the transactions and do not benefit financially from inside information.

“We have a system in which a member of Congress can invest heavily, for example in the coal industry, and then be responsible for overseeing climate policy,” said Delaney Marsco, senior ethics legal adviser at the Non-profit Campaign Legal Center. “That does not make sense.”

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Manchin said the senator “is and has been in full compliance with the ethics and financial disclosure rules of the Senate.”

“He continues to work to find a way forward on important climate legislation that maintains US leadership in energy innovation and critical energy reliability,” the statement added.

The new focus on Manchin’s energy interests comes as Biden and Democrats rush this week to complete a framework for a domestic policy bill that includes many of the president’s priorities on the economy and climate. To avoid obstruction from Senate Republicans, Democrats rely on a budget process that requires the support of the 50 senators who meet with them. This gives Manchin, a moderate member of the caucus, enormous influence over the negotiations.

Manchin a has withstood the climatic conditions – including the clean energy performance program. The program, which had been a cornerstone of Biden’s climate plan, aimed to reward utilities for switching to clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, and to penalize those who rely on coal and some gas.

Manchin consistently opposed the program for months, saying he did not support a program that would push utilities to switch to clean energy faster than they already were. Manchin had also raised concerns that a shift to clean energy sources could mean that the energy would be less reliable than the continued use of fossil fuels.

“The transition is already underway,” Manchin recently told CNN. “So I am not going to sit idly by and let anyone accelerate whatever the market changes.”

The clean electricity program was Manchin’s biggest climate issue in the bill. But the West Virginia senator also rejected other provisions, including a methane royalty that would be levied on oil and gas companies that let leaked methane escape into the atmosphere.

Manchin is still negotiating the proposed methane fee with his fellow Democratic lawmakers.

Energy interests

Manchin has never hidden his links with coal. He is a former governor of the country’s second largest coal-producing state and founded Enersystems before entering politics.

The senator also has a stake in another company run by his son, Farmington Resources Inc. Its services include a “support business” for coal and metal mining and oil and gas drilling, according to company deposits with the office of the secretary of state for West Virginia.
Between 2011 and 2020, the Democrat earned between $ 4.9 million and $ 5.1 million from coal-related businesses, according to an analysis of Open Secrets, a nonprofit organization that follows money in politics.

The organization also estimates Manchin’s net worth between $ 4.3 million and $ 12.8 million. Lawmakers are only required to disclose their assets and liabilities within wide ranges, making it impossible to determine precise values.

Manchin’s campaign in the Senate has also benefited from a flood of political contributions from the energy industry in recent months. He withdrew more than $ 400,000 in energy interest during the July-September fundraising quarter, according to a CNN review of his recent filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Donors during this period included billionaire oil mogul Harold Hamm, chairman of Continental Resources; Richard Kinder, executive chairman of energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan; and Trevor Rees-Jones, who founded Chief Oil and Gas.

He also received donations from a range of energy-related political action committees during these months, including those affiliated with ConocoPhillips; utility companies such as Exelon and Dominion Energy; and Texas oil producer Pioneer Natural Resources.

Manchin, who is not running for reelection until 2024, made nearly $ 1.6 million in the third quarter – as he and another centrist Democrat, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Simena, became actors keys in negotiations on their party’s broad domestic policy proposals. .

Patchwork of ethical laws

Manchin’s energy holdings – and his actions that benefit the coal industry – are legal under rules that control potential conflicts of interest in the Senate.

The rules differ considerably, depending on the branch of government.

Executive employees, for example, are typically required to withdraw from decision-making when their financial interests conflict with their official duties. They face potential criminal and civil charges for not doing so. These appointees must also adhere to additional ethical rules established by the president, such as not engaging in decisions involving their former employers. Individuals appointed to the executive branch can request and receive ethical waivers in limited circumstances.

It is illegal for federal judges to hear cases in which they have a legal or financial interest, but the law does not impose penalties for violations.

In Congress, meanwhile, lawmakers should refrain from taking official action only under a limited set of circumstances: if they or their immediate family members are part of a small group that would benefit from the legislative action.

But a lawmaker who owns a dairy farm, for example, can still make political decisions that affect the entire dairy industry, as those actions “also have a general impact on his state or the nation,” according to the manual. ethics of the Senate.

And requiring lawmakers to back down from decisions that benefit certain industries could end up harming their constituents “who have the right to be represented by their elected representatives by voting and participating fully in all aspects of the legislative process.” , adds the manual.

Watch groups urge Congress to review its conflict of interest standards.

A bipartite measure, written by Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, would require House members, for example, to place a wide range of holdings in blind trusts. Investments in widely held funds, such as mutual funds, and Treasury bonds would be exempt.

“The rules are currently insufficient to meet the challenges, especially when you take into account that the American people really see corruption as a huge problem,” said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette of Project on Government Oversight. His group supports the blind trust bill.

“The appearance of impropriety is just as bad as the reality,” he added, “because it determines what people think about politics and government.”

CNN’s Ella Nilsen contributed to this story.


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