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The Ghost of Enron Haunts Joe Manchin’s Coal Fortune

For decades, Joe Manchin has been getting rich off a particularly dirty breed of coal.

Sen. Joe Manchin speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

If there was every any confusion as to where West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s loyalties lie, the last budget season put paid to that with interest. His seemingly bottomless vigor in dismantling President Biden’s signature infrastructure/climate bills showed the world that he cares not for his party, his beleaguered president, his own people back home who he screwed right through their Carhartt jeans, or the planet whose resources have gifted him wealth, yachts and influence.

Manchin is almost exclusively about one thing: coal. Given the extreme damage he has done defending his nuggets of filthy gold, there is a grim symmetry to the fact that he founded his fortune on the sale of garbage. “Gob,” it is called, a form of trash coal “that is typically cast aside as junk by mining companies but can be burned to produce electricity,” according to a damning New York Times report on the roots of the senator’s financial success.

“Gob,” or waste coal, is, according to the Energy Justice Network: “waste coal piles accumulated mostly between 1900 and 1970. The piles look like hills or small mountains that are dark and barren. Hundreds of millions of tons of waste coal and rock litter the landscape in mining states. Waste coal piles leach iron, manganese and aluminum pollution into waterways and cause acid drainage that kills neighboring streams. These piles sometimes even catch fire, releasing toxic pollution into the air. Nationally, waste coal has an average of 60% of the BTU value of normal coals. It can take up to twice as much waste coal to produce the same amount of electricity.”

In 1987, a younger Joe Manchin helped developers build the Grant Town coal power plant. He then went into business with the plant directly, and has been selling its operators gob coal for decades. Grant Town is Manchin’s only client, and he has guarded its interests zealously over the years, often crossing lines of propriety and even seeming legality as his political star rose to the governor’s office in West Virginia, and then to the Senate.

More, from the Times report:

He created his business while a state lawmaker in anticipation of the Grant Town plant, which has been the sole customer for his gob for the past 20 years, according to federal data. At key moments over the years, Mr. Manchin used his political influence to benefit the plant. He urged a state official to approve its air pollution permit, pushed fellow lawmakers to support a tax credit that helped the plant, and worked behind the scenes to facilitate a rate increase that drove up revenue for the plant — and electricity costs for West Virginians.

Records show that several energy companies have held ownership stakes in the power plant, major corporations with interests far beyond West Virginia. At various points, those corporations have sought to influence the Senate, including legislation before committees on which Mr. Manchin sat, creating what ethics experts describe as a conflict of interest.

To add actual insult to actual injury, Manchin’s role in gob coal sales to the Grant Town plant has been screwing over West Virginians for going on 35 years now. Gob coal burns dirty and slow, generating less electricity per pound. This practice “has harmed West Virginians economically, costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in excess electricity fees. That’s because gob is a less efficient power source than regular coal,” according to the Times report.

Upon reading this, an old crypt 20 years buried cracked open within my memory. What does this remind me of?

They’re f——g taking all the money back from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?

Yeah, grandma Millie, man.

Yeah, now she wants her f——g money back for all the power you’ve charged right up, jammed right up her a—— for f——g $250 a megawatt hour.

You remember it, and if it’s new to you, you’d better find out; it is a year 2000 transcript of conversation between two Enron employees yukking it up over the energy-gouging practices of that fallen corporate giant. Enron was all set to be the I.G. Farben of the George W. Bush administration until the company abruptly exploded and died in a dizzying avalanche of corruption and price-fixing charges.

“Enron was the number one career patron for George W. Bush,” Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis told ABC News in December of 2001. “There was no company in America closer to George W. Bush than Enron.” Lewis says the company’s goal in backing Bush and other politicians was to encourage further deregulation of the energy industry.”

“In an earlier conversation from Aug. 5, 2000,” continues ABC News, “two traders, identified as Person 1 and Person 2, gleefully discuss how a wildfire in California has reduced the ability of a transmission line to carry electricity, boosting the value of power in parts of the state and the profits on electricity trades they have made.”

Person 2: The magical word of the day is ”Burn, Baby, Burn”-

Person 1: What’s happening?

Person 2: There’s a fire under the core line it’s been de-rated from 45 to 2,100.

Person 1: Really?

Person 2: Yup.

Together: Burn, baby, burn.

Person 1: That’s a beautiful saying.

Thanks to September 11 and the twin-bill wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush and his administration managed to run through the Enron raindrops without getting wet. The company itself was obliterated beneath the crush weight of its own institutional corruption, and the principal author of all that misery — Ken Lay — dropped dead of a heart attack in 2006.

Screwing over Grandma Millie for cash by the megawatt hour by providing an overpriced and substandard product? Gaming the system through powerful political connections? Total disdain for the customer, along with the rules and regulations? Golly, it sounds like Joe Manchin’s sweet Grant Town gig and Enron have quite a bit in common, lo’ these 35 years hence.

“What is dead may never die,” read the words of House Greyjoy, “but rises again harder and stronger.”

Indeed. Thanks, Joe. Enjoy your gob fortune, and tell Ken Lay hi for me when the time comes.

Rust never sleeps. Neither does greed. Neither does coal. Neither, apparently, does Joe Manchin.

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