By Matthew Young, RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Senate, on Wednesday, passed a controversial $290 million appropriation bill to fund Form Energy’s “reversible rusting” battery plant in Hancock County. Designated as HB 2882 and sponsored by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, the bill was previously passed in the House of Delegates by a vote of 69 to 25. However, much as with the House session, the Senate’s passage of the bill was not without debate.
Wednesday’s discussion began with the Senate’s rejection of amendments proposed by both Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, and Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, intended to reallocate a portion of the appropriation to the development of broadband and water projects, as well as $200,000 in re-training protection for the aging mine and coal workforce.
Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, opposed the amendments, saying, “Should [the amendments] be adopted, it would negate the main purpose of this supplemental (appropriation), and that is the battery manufacturer to be built in Weirton.”
It should be noted that Form Energy’s proposed facility would be located in the Senatorial District currently served by both Weld, and Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. Maroney also opposed the amendments.
Speaking in support of the amendments, particularly the one proposed by Phillips, was Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph.
“Everybody in this room is very well aware that it’s not hard to find references on this particular company’s (Form Energy) website about how they intend to end the coal industry and end the national gas industry,” Karnes said. “But on this amendment in particular, we’re going to give $300 million to a company that says, ‘We want to end the coal industry.’”
“And what the senator from Logan is simply asking for, is if you’re going to destroy all of these jobs, maybe we should have just a little bit to go toward helping retrain people that are going to be out of work and displaced if this company is successful,” Karnes continued. “I assume we’re not giving them $300 million and hoping they fail. So if they’re successful in what we supposedly want them to do, it’s going to destroy a lot of coal jobs down in southern West Virginia.”
“(The amendment) is the tiniest little token to the people in southern West Virginia to say we haven’t forgotten about you, so I support it,” Karnes concluded.
To close debate on the amendment, Phillips said, “I’m not asking to kill the bill – I’m only asking for $200,000. Ladies and gentlemen, a vote against this (amendment) is a vote against your coal miner, your conductor on the train, your school teachers in the coalfields, everybody.”
Phillips’ proposal was rejected by a vote of 20 to 14. Once the amendments were defeated, the Senate opened debate on the bill as introduced.
Should HB 2882 be signed into law, Form Energy’s initial allocation would be $105 million – spread over three installments. The expectation would be that construction of the facility will begin sometime in 2023 on the former site of Weirton Steel.
As previously reported by Metro News’ Brad McElhinny, Form Energy’s battery technology operates through a “reversible rusting” process. The chemical reaction which occurs during the conversion of metal-to-rust serves as the power source of the battery.
Sen. Weld provided an overview of the proposed financial implications: “Should this [HB 2882] pass, no company – not Form, not anybody – is getting money. This is not a cash giveaway. We are not giving money directly to this company.”
“The money that is appropriated will go into an escrow account, only to be released at three different intervals when certain benchmarks are hit by this company (Form Energy),” Weld continued. “Those benchmarks include customer contracts which they have entered into, the number of jobs that they employ at the site, and their private investment into the project. If they don’t hit those marks, then no money is released from that escrow account.”
“So let’s be clear on this point – no money is being given to this company,” Weld added.
According to Weld, the state would maintain “collateral and security” in the Form Energy project for the first six years. Both the land in Hancock County, as well as the facility built upon it would remain the property of West Virginia for that period of time.
“If Form is successful, then we’ve got a tremendous economic driver in our state,” Weld noted. “If they are not successful – because of that collateral that we have – then the state will own the manufacturing site located on 55 acres of what I believe to be the most prime real estate in this state.”
Sen. Randy Smith, whose previous amendment proposal was rejected, spoke in opposition of the full bill. Smith explained that Form Energy’s advertised mission statement is to fully eliminate the use of coal, fossil fuels and natural gas as sources of energy, and to make, “wind, water, and solar the only source of (energy) generation in the world.”
“I respect their goals,” Smith said. “All of us that own companies have goals. But we don’t ask the state to throw our citizens and taxpayers under the bus.”
“We’re an energy state – whether we like it or not, whether the country likes it or not – West Virginia is an energy state,” Smith continued. “We produce energy, gas and coal. Everything about this (HB 2882) and the whole scenario is hypocritical. I didn’t come down here to broker deals with CEOs of big companies. I was sent down here to pass laws and policies to help West Virginia prosper, and to protect the citizens.”
“This is probably going to pass and the sun will come up tomorrow, but I’m going to fight it until the very end,” Smith added.
The Senate passed HB 2882 by a vote of 21 to 13. The bill will now be reported to Gov. Jim Justice for his review and approval. The RealWV will provide updates as to the status of HB 2882 as additional information is made available.