CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Lawmakers in West Virginia’s House of Delegates on Friday greenlit an investment of $105 million in taxpayer dollars to support a Bill Gates-backed company that is building a renewable energy battery plant in the state’s Northern Panhandle.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration following its passage in the House 69 to 25 in one of the most contentious votes halfway through the 60-day legislative session, after hours of debate that divided the Republican supermajority.
Lawmakers opposed to the bill called it “cronyism” and decried the idea of giving millions of taxpayer dollars to billionaire-backed companies. Other critics said West Virginia shouldn’t be supporting projects that will hurt the coal and natural gas industries.
Form Energy — which will produce iron-air batteries and has several prominent investors, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — has stated opposition to fossil fuels.
“I think a vote in favor of this bill is an endorsement of cronyism, climate alarmism and central economic planning,” Republican Del. Elias Coop-Gonzalez said. “I cannot implore you enough to vote against this bill.”
It was another representation of the ongoing shift in West Virginia, one of the nation’s top coal producers, as state leaders seek cleaner producing cleaner forms of energy and preserving the state’s roots. In the last year, the state has seen a slew of major announcements for alternative energy projects including green battery plants and a Warren Buffett-backed industrial park powered by renewable energy.
The vote was also indicative of growing pains in a state that relied on coal production for over a century. Ruled by Democrats for decades, the state has since become home to one of the country’s most Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Speaking in opposition to the bill Friday, Republican Del. Todd Kirby called the proposed plant “the mother of all crony capitalist projects.”
He asked his colleagues what their constituents will say when they learn that the state is investing their hard-earned money to “build some type of plant to make something with the aim and the goal of destroying coal and natural gas.”
“I represent the people of my district, and I cannot go back to them and tell them that I helped write a check for $105 million for a company that said they want to put coal and natural gas out of business,” Republican Del. Geno Chiarelli said.
But others disagreed.
Speaking in support, Del. Daniel Linville said lawmakers didn’t have the same argument about giving money to Warren Buffett for his subsidiary’s industrial park, which will make titanium products for the aerospace industry.
“I’m just looking for a little consistency here,” Linville said. “I just can’t believe that we’re sitting here making these arguments and trying to claim that this company — this company — is the one that’s going to try to harm West Virginia. It’s just unbelievable.”
Republican Del. Margitta Mazzocchi, who represents part of southern coalfields region, said she ran for office to bring needed jobs to her community.
“Do I like the kind of business that was chosen by the executive branch? Not really,” she said. “But what do the people say? They say jobs – it’s a job. It’s a job to feed the families. It’s to grow the community.”
The bill would allow the state Legislature to give money to the state economic development office to offer as part of an incentive package to attract Form Energy, an American battery storage company that currently employs around 400 people.
State leaders announced in December that Form Energy had agreed to its first commercial-scale manufacturing facility in Weirton, an investment of up to $760 million. Construction is expected to start later this year, with production slated to begin in 2024, creating at least 750 full-time jobs.
The total proposed state support for the project for the project is $290 million, including the $105 approved by the House. A total of $75 million was already invested in purchasing the property, the site of a closed steel facility, and to start infrastructure work.
The incentive deal requires that the plant be built on 55 acres of state-owned land and that Form Energy pay a market-based lease rate and follow through on its promise to create hundreds of jobs. If these provisions are not met, state support will be withdrawn.
“This is not a tax cut to billionaires — it has nothing to do with that ideology,” Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin said Friday on the House floor. “Simply, we’re fixing up property to attract a tenant that’s going to provide a certain amount of jobs. If they don’t, then the deal’s off.”
Democratic Del. Larry Rowe said the plant will make the Ohio River area a “critical mass of industrialization.”
“This is our seed corn,” he said. “This is the money in surplus that we’re able to use to create more money in the future.”