CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry Baber told Gazette editors Friday that they support expanding West Virginia's renewable energy portfolio, but they also said the state can't abandon coal.
Senate Republican candidate John Raese showed up at the start of Friday's meeting, but abruptly left after learning that Baber would attend.
Manchin said the United States burns one of every eight tons of coal in the world. Coal is West Virginia's largest export.
"There's a demand for our coal," Manchin said. "You don't leave your base. I'm all for technology as far as renewables, but you can't force the market to go the direction you want it to go."
Baber called coal a "throwback to the 19th century," and the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster "an absolute crime to humanity."
"But nobody is going to pull the plug on coal," he said. "We are dependent on coal."
Manchin said the U.S. must continue to pursue "clean coal" technology and other measures to reduce emissions at coal-fired power plants.
"We should be finding the technology that's affordable," he said. "At the proper time, we will transition to another fuel."
Baber said his campaign was about "the transition from coal to green energy," though he opposes wind energy projects.
He sharply criticized mountaintop removal, a surface mining process that uses explosives to blast off hilltops and deposit leftover rock and dirt in nearby valleys and streams.
"The mountains are being lopped off, and the people are being poisoned," Baber said. "I don't want us to become the mountaintop removal state."
Baber suggested that former mountaintop removal sites be used for solar energy projects. About 90 percent of former mountaintop removal sites are vacant land, the candidates said.
Manchin said such sites could be used for agriculture -- to grow soybeans or other feedstocks for biofuel facilities.
"Put in an agricultural base with a root system," he said. "It would be a tremendous opportunity for a whole new industry."
Both candidates also criticized Washington politics.
Manchin said the U.S. Senate frequently gets bogged down by procedural votes -- even for decisions such as judges' appointments. Manchin said he supports reforming Senate filibuster rules.
"The Senate is not working the way our founders wanted it to work," he said.
The candidates also criticized that the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which gave the green light for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on ads and other materials, calling for the election or defeat of political candidates.
"Our government is up for sale to the highest bidder," Baber said.
Manchin cited federal redistricting as another major problem. He said federal lawmakers take part in decisions to redraw district lines.