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Energy Secretary Pushes Regional Job Potential From Climate Action

Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm.
Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm.

On Thursday — Earth Day — President Joe Biden announced an ambitious goal to fight the climate crisis: The country will cut by half its global warming emissions by 2030. Such action will require a massive reduction in the use of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, long a bedrock of the economy for Ohio Valley and Appalachian communities, and some regional politicians have already voiced opposition to the president’s plan.

But Biden’s Energy Secretary, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said in an interview with the Ohio Valley ReSource that the region could gain jobs as a result of action against climate change.

“I don't mean to be a Pollyanna, I understand this issue of transitioning is hard,” she said, “but I want to give people hope that this administration is really interested in helping to lure businesses, and diversify existing businesses that are there to be able to take advantage of what is going to be a massive market opportunity if we do this right.”

To support that point, the Department of Energy announced nearly $110 million for projects intended to keep or create jobs in energy communities, and an interagency working group released a report that identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that energy communities can use.

The existing funding available includes a wide range of support, from infrastructure improvements to the repair of damaged mine lands. The working group report also prioritizes the communities that should be the focus of assistance based on the concentration of vulnerable jobs associated with fossil fuels. Central Appalachia and western Kentucky rank highly on those measures. 

Granholm said the Biden administration’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes directives that would steer a significant amount of the funding to such vulnerable communities. 

“And obviously, coal and fossil communities are at the top of the list,” she said.

The newly announced DOE funding includes: $75 million for carbon capture projects, intended to remove CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities; $19.5 million for “critical mineral extraction” from the waste from burning and mining coal; and $15 million for two geothermal energy research projects at West Virginia University, in cooperation with Sandia National Laboratories.

Granholm said West Virginia could be a geothermal “hot spot,” and the research could yield valuable information about how to tap that energy. The critical minerals research will focus on scarce elements important for manufacturing batteries and electronics, many of which are now imported. Initial research shows that coal waste products could contain enough of these minerals to make harvesting them worthwhile.

Carbon capture and storage has long been an elusive goal for the Energy Department, which invested heavily in research projects such as the ill-fatedFutureGen facility, which aimed to strip CO2 from coal power plant emissions. The project was canceled, and similar efforts to apply the technology to commercial facilities have also failed. 

Granholm defended the continued spending on the technology, and said that the emissions reduction goal the president has set will provide the incentive to make it work.

“When the president announces that we're going to reduce by half our CO2 emissions by 2030, people should see that that's a market signal that we're going to need these products to be able to achieve those goals,” she said. “And you’d better believe that there are businesses who are eager to capitalize on that demand.”

Granholm also announced that the current leader of an Energy Department laboratory has been appointed to lead the administration’s work group tasked with assisting coal and power plant communities. Brian Anderson, a West Virginia resident, directs the National Energy Technology Laboratory, based jointly in Morgantown, West Virginia, and in Pittsburgh.

The West Virginia focus of the Energy Department’s announcement and funding could be construed — in purely political terms — as an offering to the state’s Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin. Manchin, a centrist with strong coal industry and labor connections, is a critical vote Biden will need in the evenly divided Senate. 

Granholm said she sought Manchin’s input in crafting the report.   

“Joe Manchin and I have certainly had many conversations about this,” she said. “He's an ally in this fight, he wants to make sure that coal miners are not left behind.” 

On the same day that Biden convened a virtual climate summit with world leaders, Manchin conducted a hearing on carbon capture technology in the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. 

Republican Congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, criticized Biden’s climate goal as both harmful to the domestic energy industry and futile in the face of global emissions.  

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, immediately announced his opposition to what he called Biden’s “radical, transformational and too-rapid reductions.” Morrisey hinted at the possibility of a lawsuit. 

“Notably missing from President Biden’s proposal is any discussion of the legal basis for his new, unilateral mandate,” he said.

Morrisey earlier led a successful legal challenge against President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.


Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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