Lawmakers in both houses began work Thursday on what is expected to be the first bill passed by the new, Republican-controlled West Virginia Legislature: legislation to repeal a 2009 law that would require power companies in the state to use fuels other than coal for a portion of their electricity production a decade from now.
The Alternative Energy Portfolio Act, passed by lawmakers and signed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, requires power plants to reach thresholds for using alternative fuels, ultimately to account for 25 percent of electricity generated by 2025.
At the time it passed, lobbyists for coal and electric utilities signed onto the bill, which was criticized by environmentalists for what they considered overly broad definitions for alternative fuels, including various types of coal technologies.
On Thursday, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said much has changed since the coal industry backed the legislation in 2009.
"Today's a different world than when this thing passed, Raney said, citing what he called an "onslaught of federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations and lawsuit settlements restricting power plant emissions. Raney also said he believes free market forces should prevail.
"The Legislature ought not to be dictating what fuel is used to produce electricity, he told the Senate Energy Committee.
Repeal of the bill was a campaign issue in the 2014 election, as Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, noted Thursday in the House Energy Committee. He said more than 40 Democratic delegates were targeted in campaign attack ads for supporting what Republicans called "West Virginia's cap-and-trade law.
White noted that he worked with Raney in 2009 to come up with a workable final version of the bill, which has little in common with the federal cap-and-trade law.
Jeff Herholdt, director of the West Virginia Division of Energy, has said the program is not aimed at reducing coal use or even at tackling climate change, a problem most of the world's experts say is caused by human activities like burning coal, and needs to be urgently addressed.
"We're the only state that has an alternative portfolio standard that would be met with 100 percent coal, Herholdt told the Gazette in 2013.
Manchin, now the state's senior U.S. senator, said Thursday, "I am deeply disappointed that the Republicans in the West Virginia Legislature have decided to play partisan politics with our state's energy and utility rates by attempting to repeal the bipartisan Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio law.
"I had always hoped and believed that the corrosive political atmosphere that has been so destructive in Washington would not make its way to our great state, Manchin said. "This attempt by Republicans proves that the worst of Washington political gamesmanship has made its way to West Virginia.
One complication emerged Thursday with repealing the law: It also would wipe out a net metering provision that requires power companies to give credits to customers with solar or wind power systems that generate electricity for the power grid.
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said he had received more than 90 emails from homeowners who have invested in solar or other home energy systems and are concerned they will lose those credits if the law is repealed. Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, raised the same concerns.
Senate Energy Committee members delayed advancing their version of the bill Thursday, to allow a rewrite that will repeal most of the Alternative Energy Portfolio Act - but retain the net metering provisions.
House Energy Committee members advanced their version of the bill (HB2001) without amendment on a unanimous voice vote Thursday, but the House bill goes on to House Judiciary for further consideration.
While proponents of the bill criticized the law for putting, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, termed it, "onerous requirements on power companies, FirstEnergy lobbyist Sammy Gray said the power company already can meet the alternative energy requirements through the use of waste coal, supercritical pulverized coal and hydroelectric power.
Asked if other power companies operating in the state also can comply with the act, Gray told House members, "My understanding is they can meet these standards, also, but I can only speak for FirstEnergy.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.
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