W.Va. GOP kicks off work by focusing on energy act repeal


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia's Republican-led Legislature took first steps Thursday to repeal the state's renewable-energy standards, which power companies say won't cost more to meet, but coal interests have started to bemoan.

After the GOP made historic gains in a groundswell election, the party is using the repeal effort as a political wedge against Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is mulling a return run for governor.

The standards require generating 25 percent of electricity with renewable or alternate power sources by 2025. Some coal-burning technologies qualify, including a Morgantown coal power plant.

In 2009, coal boosters were fine with the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio. The West Virginia Coal Association helped craft the bill and, until recently, had defended it.

On Thursday, association president Bill Raney said the scenario has changed, with increased federal regulation and legal action on the industry. No coal mining jobs have been lost due to the law, but some would likely be in the future, Raney said.

"It becomes even more critical now not to dictate what fuel is used; that the free market should have the ability to determine that," Raney told House lawmakers Thursday.

Environmental groups aren't thrilled with the standards either, calling them ineffective.

On Thursday, a House of Delegates committee unanimously passed its repeal of the portfolio. A Senate panel discussed it without voting.

In a 2010 challenge against Manchin, Republican John Raese tried to paint the law as cap and trade. That cycle, Manchin fired a shotgun through the federal cap-and-trade bill in a TV ad in opposition to the legislation.

That type of conversation has resumed.

"Ending Joe Manchin's Cap-and-Trade bill to free our coal mines and power plants and lower energy costs for hard-working West Virginians is a top priority," said West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Lucas.

Almost all of the electricity produced in West Virginia comes from coal. Power companies, however, still haven't opposed the portfolio.

"We're fine with it in place," Sammy Gray of FirstEnergy told House lawmakers Thursday.

Gray says FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE) could comply with the standards at no additional cost, with no effect on business plans and no jobs lost.

In a statement, Manchin said the repeal push shows "the worst of Washington political gamesmanship has made its way to West Virginia."

"If the Republicans now believe that this law harmed the coal industry and increased rates, I would expect that their legislation will have a mandatory reduction of utility rates of more than ten percent for all West Virginians," Manchin said.

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