“Manchin’s coal corruption is so much worse than you knew.” So proclaimed the headline of a Rolling Stone article this past January, referring to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. In March, the New York Times published a similar article. “At every step of his political career,” the Times reported, “Joe Manchin helped a West Virginia power plant that is the sole customer of his private coal business.” Salon, just a few days later, followed suit, describing Machin’s ties to the coal industry as a “stunning portrait of political corruption.” (See also here, here, here, and here). These stories, understandably, focus on Machin himself—the Rolling Stone article even calls him “the final villain” in the story of corruption it unfolds. And Manchin’s conduct is indeed outrageous: First as Governor and then as a Senator, Manchin lined his pockets off of personal stakes in the coal industry—an industry he used his political power to prop up at every turn—in spite of pollution, climate change, inefficiency, and high costs to his constituents.
Yet the journalistic outrage over Manchin’s unethical (albeit not illegal) behavior may be distracting from the real issue, if not outright misdiagnosing it. Corruption in the coal industry is not the result of individual unscrupulous politicians. The problem is coal itself.