By Anna Edgerton and Jennifer A. Dlouhy
November 6, 2022 - The White House sought to reframe comments by President Joe Biden on closing coal plants as part of a US “energy transition,” responding to harsh criticism by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin days before midterm elections with Democratic congressional majorities at stake.
Biden’s comments while campaigning in California “have been twisted to suggest a meaning that was not intended” and the president “regrets it if anyone hearing these remarks took offence,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Saturday.
Three days before the election, the latest friction between Biden and fellow Democrat Manchin erupted just as the president was about to campaign in Pennsylvania, a coal-rich state with a closely fought Senate race that could determine control of the chamber. Neighboring West Virginia is the no. 2 US coal-producing state. Pennsylvania is the third-largest.
Biden told the California audience Friday that burning coal is becoming less economically viable and “we’re going to be shutting these plants down all across America.” That drew a furious reaction from the mining industry and Manchin, who called the remarks “outrageous and divorced from reality.”
Though Biden’s comments reflect his administration’s support for green energy, they were politically perilous. Mehmet Oz, the Republican contender for the open US Senate seat in Pennsylvania, has already attacked his Democratic opponent John Fetterman and Biden for their stances on oil and gas.
Biden recognizes that coal has long powered the US economy, and he has worked with Manchin to bring jobs and federal funds to regions hit by the transition away from fossil fuels, Jean-Pierre said. “No one will be left behind,” she added.
Three presidents — Biden, Donald Trump and Barack Obama — are campaigning Saturday in Pennsylvania, which has a long history as both a producer and user of the fossil fuel.
Manchin slammed the president’s comments as out of touch with rising energy prices and disrespectful to coal miners and workers.
“Being cavalier about the loss of coal jobs for men and women in West Virginia and across the country who literally put their lives on the line to help build and power this country is offensive and disgusting,” the senator said in a statement Saturday. He called for a public apology by Biden and said it’s time “he learn a lesson that his words matter and have consequences.”
The United Mine Workers of America defended the coal industry’s role in helping the energy transition and developing technology to reduce coal’s carbon footprint. UMWA President Cecil Roberts called Biden’s comments “disheartening” and invited the president to visit communities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky that have been impacted by coal plants shutting down.
“It’s easy to talk about ending an industry that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in Appalachia and the Midwest, but the reality of such an action is harsh,” Roberts said in a statement.
Rich Nolan, head of the National Mining Association, said Biden’s comments are “completely incompatible” with energy-driven inflation and the needs of the electric grid in many parts of the US. Any action that contributes to the global energy crisis would be “reckless and unthinkable,” he said.
Manchin, who isn’t up for re-election this year, is a rare Democrat who represents mostly conservative constituents. He has emerged as a key vote in the evenly split Senate by helping to pass Democrat-only projects such as the Inflation Reduction Act after blocking Biden’s initial Build Back Better tax-and-spending plan.
Manchin has faced waves of criticism from parts of the party for holding up policy priorities and for refusing to end the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote majority to pass most bills.
On Saturday, his frustration with Biden prompted him to publicly question the president’s credibility.
“Comments like these are the reason the American people are losing trust in President Biden,” Manchin said in his statement. “It seems his positions change depending on the audience and the politics of the day.”