By Leah Willingham
Janaury 22, 2023 - Two bills designed make it easier for West Virginia to attract hydrogen hubs and carbon sequestration projects to the historically coal-dependent state are headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
The bills, which won final approval from the state legislature on Friday, would allow some kinds of state-owned land to be leased or sold for economic development projects that remove harmful gas emissions from the atmosphere and store it underground.
Carbon sequestration and storage has long been touted as an answer to global warming, a way to curb the energy industry’s burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity. The bills could also open up land for storing emissions for a potential hydrogen hub project.
Lawmakers did not disclose whether the bills are tied to a specific project proposal, and Justice has not indicated whether or not he will sign the bill into law — although it appears likely he will. State officials have been openly vying for a share of the billions of dollars for hydrogen hub project proposals included the federal bipartisan infrastructure law.
Lawmakers’ votes on the carbon sequestration bills represent a shift in West Virginia, one of the nation’s top coal producers, as state leaders seek cleaner forms of producing energy as a way to preserve the state’s roots. In the last year, the state has seen a slew of major announcements for alternative energy projects including green battery plants and a Warren Buffett-backed industrial park powered by renewable energy.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who is leading a nuclear reactor demonstration in Wyoming at the site of an existing coal-fired power plant, visited West Virginia just last week. He said he’s looking for sites to expand his efforts to the East Coast.
But the votes were also indicative of growing pains in a state that relied on coal production for over a century. Ruled by Democrats for decades, the state has since become home to one of the country’s most Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Money supporting future projects will likely see significant support from President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation drafted by Sen. Joe Manchin, the only remaining Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia. Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito voted in favor of the infrastructure law, but not the Inflation Reduction Act.
Before voting in support of one of the bills Thursday in the House of Delegates, Republican Del. Todd Longanacre asked colleagues to “proceed with caution.”
Longanacre said the current Republican supermajority legislature has been “the body to try to undo 90 years of Democratic policy in a state that had us at the bottom of the barrel economically.”
State GOP leaders have slowly started turning the state’s economy around, in large part due to policies that encourage economic development, he said.
“It could in fact create jobs, and we do in fact need employers in West Virginia,” Longanacre said of the legislation. “But I hope I will not regret voting for Joe Biden’s ‘Green New Deal’ just renamed policy that’s floating down here to our state.”
Democratic Del. Shawn Fluharty, one of only 12 Democrats remaining in the 100-member House, also said he’d be voting in support — but called out state Republicans in a floor speech to “give credit where credit is due.”
“I really want to thank those truly responsible — Democrats in Washington, D.C. — Joe Manchin,” he said.
“I want to make sure we thank Joe and not Jim,” added Fluharty, referring to the Republican Gov. Justice.
Fluharty said he expects to see a major announcement soon on a new economic development project involving carbon sequestration, but didn’t elaborate.
One bill headed to Justice’s desk would allow the state Division of Natural Resources to sell, lease or dispose of wildlife management areas and other state land in West Virginia that is not being used. The second allows for pore spaces beneath state land to be used for underground carbon sequestration. Pores are microscopic spaces between particles of rock or sand.
Before he voted Thursday against the bill in the House, Republican Del. Henry Corbett Dillon said he knows the interest the Biden administration has taken in decarbonization.
“This is just one more step in that direction,” he said. This is taking us down that green new energy trail. We have to decide as a House whether we’re gonna go down that trail all the way — I urge that we don’t do that.”
“I urge that we don’t look at the jobs and money and ignore that sometimes those come with other costs — long term costs,” he continued.