Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, is in an unenviable position when it comes to coal and climate change.
Even as he attacks his Republican opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, as a climate-science denier, he waffles when asked about President Obama's forthcoming climate-change regulations, controversial rules which will slash pollution from coal-fired power plants, possibly paralyzing the nation's coal industry. Coal drives the economy of Virginia's rural southwest, so McAuliffe has to tread cautiously.
Until now, McAuliffe has hedged on whether he'd back Obama's climate rules by pointing out that the regulations—now being crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency—haven't yet been released.
He's about to lose that excuse. The EPA is expected to release by or before Sept. 20 a draft regulation to cut carbon pollution from new coal-fired power plants. An earlier draft of that rule, if enacted, would have effectively frozen construction of new U.S. coal plants, analysts predicted. Supporting the rule will almost certainly cost McAuliffe votes in Virginia's coal country. But opposing it could be viewed as hypocritical for a candidate seeking to gain leverage by attacking Cuccinelli as a climate denier for engaging in a "witch hunt" against former University of Virginia scientist Michael Mann.
On Thursday, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli each spoke for about half an hour at a forum on energy policy at Virginia's George Mason University. Although the topic of the event was energy, McAuliffe, perhaps unsurprisingly, spent most of his allotted time speaking about other issues where he has more to gain by hammering Cuccinelli, such as the AG's relationship with the fathers-rights movement and opposition to the Violence Against Women Act.
Asked in a question-and-answer session later about "federal programs that would have an impact on energy in Virginia"—evidently a reference to the forthcoming climate-change rules—McAuliffe responded, "If the federal government has proposed policies … we don't know the new policies. They haven't come out. They've announced them, we don't actually know what the proposals are yet. But if there are proposals and policies that are coming out that will adversely affect one single Virginian, we need to go to Washington and make sure we stop it. We need to make sure we protect every job in Virginia today. I would make sure nothing is being done to adversely impact on Virginian jobs."
Energy and climate change are increasingly significant concerns for Virginia's economic and political landscape. While the forthcoming climate-change rules could hurt Virginia's western coal industry, the impacts of climate change could be devastating for the state's coastal areas. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that Norfolk is one of nation's cities most vulnerable to destruction from sea-level rise. At the same time, Virginia is poised to become the first state on the East Coast to open up to offshore oil and gas drilling, thanks to bipartisan support from the state Legislature and its congressional delegation. Discussions are also underway to build wind turbines off the Virginia coast.
McAuliffe is also trying to walk the line on coal by touting his support of so-called clean-coal-technology research. Scientists hope that a breakthrough in carbon-capture and sequestration technology, which would trap the carbon pollution from coal plants and inject it into underground storage units, could allow the coal industry to survive in a world of greenhouse-gas regulation.
"I've sat with folks involved in coal production and we're in agreement on the priority of what we need to do," McAuliffe said Thursday. "It's to create those new energy jobs related to coal for the 21st century, like carbon capture and sequestration. Those would be the jobs. We have 5,100 direct jobs today in the coal business.… How do we grow that?"
Despite McAuliffe's equivocation, he has won the backing of deep-pocketed environmental groups. The League of Conservation Voters is campaigning aggressively for him in the state, in part because environmental groups see a Cuccinelli victory as a nightmare outcome. "He is the only governor candidate in history elevating the climate-change denier story in such an aggressive way," wrote League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in an e-mail to National Journal.
Cuccinelli's relationship to coal is much less complicated. At Tuesday's forum, he spoke for more than half an hour about his energy policies, returning again and again to his full-throated support of coal.
"The war on coal is a war on our poor," he said. "Drive with me down through southwest Virginia you can see what I mean.… [McAuliffe] has supported eliminating an industry that's vital." Cuccinelli compared policies that would slow or stop coal production in southwest Virginia to "outlawing federal contractors in Northern Virginia." Northern Virginia's affluent economy is heavily dependent on federal contractors serving Washington.
However, despite his record of skepticism on climate change, Cuccinelli refused to directly answer questions about the issue. Asked by reporter to state his views on whether human activities, such as burning coal, contribute to climate change, Cuccinelli responded, "Certainly I think we've got environmental issues we need to deal with at the national level…. But … my view is we have to push back on the overreach of the federal government because they are out of balance in this area and it is causing enormous economic disruption."
Asked about the potential economic disruption of rising sea levels on Norfolk and other areas on Virginia's coast, he replied, "Certainly I don't expect Virginia to go out on its own and hamper its economic prospects as some states have done…. I am not intending to impose additional restrictions in Virginia that would cause economic damage to pursue these policies."