In a Monday, May 11, 2015 file photo, West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016 in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. | CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHRIS TILLEY, FILE
In November, West Virginians will have two choices. A a party-switching, self-funding, brash billionaire who denies climate change and loves coal, and a lawmaker who talks about bringing jobs back to the state.
And that’s just the gubernatorial race.
On Tuesday night, Jim Justice easily won the West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary and will face off against Republican state Senate President Bill Cole in the general election.
Justice is the richest man in West Virginia — the state’s only billionaire. He made his money as a coal executive and developer in his family’s businesses, and became a household name in the state after buying the state’s Greenbriar resort and making it profitable.
He also told West Virginians that he will make sure the state “mines more coal … than has ever been mined before.”
He denies the scientific consensus on climate change, telling the Register-Herald editorial board that he welcomes the discussion but just doesn’t know:
Until we have really accurate data to prove (that humans contribute) I don’t think we need to blow our legs off on a concept. I welcome the scientific approach to it and the knowledge. I would not sit here and say, “absolutely now, there’s no such thing” or I would no way on Earth say there is such a thing. I believe there’s an awful lot of scientists that say, “no, no, no, this is just smoke and mirrors.” I welcome the discussion, but I don’t know, I just don’t know.
Justice beat former U.S. district attorney Booth Goodwin and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, netting 51 percent of the Democratic vote, boasting a seven-fold monetary advantage largely due to his own funds. Kessler raised the least in campaign donations, and made a name for himself speaking forcefully about the need to take climate change seriously. He supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, who won the state and suggesting that firm commitment to climate action was not a disqualifying trait for West Virginia voters. Booth, endorsed by former Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), made a name for himself prosecuting former Massey Energy mine owner Don Blankenship for willfully conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 people died in the worst mining disaster in almost a half-century.
Pictures of seized mining equipment at Jim Justice owned coal mine for failure to pay $850k in Tazewell Co. taxes pic.twitter.com/5ac3CNsMvV
— Leslie Rubin (@LeslieRubinWCHS) March 4, 2016
Local activists have targeted Justice for safety violations at his mines, and for failing to pay mining fines. The state GOP is even hitting him for not paying environmental fines and ignoring mine safety rules. They have also attacked him for supporting Democrats; he has supported both parties in the past. Justice was a Republican until 2015, and received Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) endorsement.
The Sierra Club’s West Virginia chapter declined to endorse any candidates at the statewide level for the primary election, though it will look at gubernatorial candidates for the general.
“Both Justice and Cole are poor choices at this point,” Jim Sconyers, chairman of the West Virginia Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. Industry groups were split: the United Mine Workers endorsed Justice while the West Virginia Coal Association supports Cole.
Cole has promised to boycott the administration’s carbon regulations, which are required under the Clean Air Act after a Supreme Court decision that found the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The Wall Street Journal said Justice is “the most optimistic candidate about coal bouncing back, despite contrary economic forecasts.”
Justice’s plan for the state centers on coal: convincing the EPA to use a “cumulative, weighted limit for carbon emissions, instead of an individual limit for each power plant.” The EPA’s carbon rule does regulate by power plant for new plants but the Clean Power Plan targets existing power production via statewide targets. It’s not clear what Justice’s cumulative, weighted limit would be. The second phase calls for using only West Virginia coal in state power plants, and he would build four more coal plants — at $1 billion apiece. The third phase is to convince utilities to drop rates 10 percent for West Virginians in a bid to get businesses to move to the state.
He has promised not to “give up on coal” and one strategy he will try is to convince the EPA that chlorine is a pollutant worth prioritizing. He speculates that Appalachian coal is lower in chlorine than Illinois coal.
West Virginia coal has a relatively high sulfur content, making it harder for plants to burn it without producing emissions that cause acid rain. All coal produces carbon emissions which cause climate change.
— Daniel Chaitin (@danielchaitin7) May 6, 2016
Justice has an early six-point lead on Cole, while Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 27 points among West Virginia voters in the same PPP poll. During a speech in the state last week, Trump donned a miner’s cap, pouted his lips, and pantomimed shoveling. He promised to get coal miners back to work and stop China from “taking our coal” — two things that are not true. Clinton received flak in the state after she talked about coal mines going out of business and investing in renewable energy businesses.