The West Virginia House of Delegates voted narrowly Thursday to keep two coal and natural gas-focused bills with the same goal separate after a roughly hour-long debate comparing the benefits of and challenges facing each.
That goal is designating sites viable for electric generation projects powered by the respective fossil fuels.
The Republican-supermajority House voted 53-41 to reject an amendment offered by Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, to merge Senate Bill 188, the bill that would require the Department of Economic Development to designate sites viable for natural gas electric generation projects, and House Bill 3482, a bill that was later introduced to do the same for coal.
West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton has objected to SB 188’s legislative findings, fearing they would be used to establish that natural gas is the state’s preferred fuel for generating electricity.
The Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia-backed SB 188 asserts that production of electricity using natural gas is “highly underdeveloped” compared to nearby states competing for economic development projects. The bill holds that advancement of technology and drilling practices have opened up “opportunity for efficient development of natural gas” in West Virginia.
Those findings would have been omitted had the House approved Foster’s amendment.
Foster and other proponents said merging the bills wouldn’t hurt the legislation overall.
“[T]his will only help it get to the finish line quicker,” Delegate Adam Vance, R-Wyoming, an underground coal miner, argued.
But those speaking out against the amendment contended SB 188 was better off as is to help attract natural gas electric generation investment.
West Virginia is the nation’s fourth-largest producer of marketed natural gas, but natural gas fueled just 4% of the state’s net electricity generation in 2021 — far below the national clip of 38%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The House passed HB 3482 requiring designation of economically viable sites within the state suitable for coal electric generation projects Wednesday in a 93-3 vote that Delegate Riley Keaton, R-Roane, called “purely symbolic” in a House floor speech Thursday, noting a lack of investment in new coal-fired plants.
“[F]rankly, I would like to see a bill, if I’m talking to a coal audience, that focuses on coal,” Delegate Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood, said. “If I’m talking to some gas producers [I’d like] to have that gas bill.”
Coal comprised 91% of West Virginia’s electricity generation in 2021, far more than any other state. But renewable energy development has proven increasingly economic when compared to coal.
A 2020 analysis from the financial advisory firm Lazard estimated the ongoing cost of a new solar energy project is $24 to $32 per megawatt hour, $10 to $16 less per megawatt hour than the cost to operate an existing coal-fired power plant.
Nearly two-thirds of total renewable power generation added last year had lower costs than the cheapest fossil fuel option, according to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, a global intergovernmental agency that supports countries in energy transitions.
The Senate passed SB 188 earlier this month.
Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.