Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative firebrand running for Virginia governor, has taken lots of heat for his views on climate change. The state's attorney general drew a national spotlight for his investigation of University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, and his skepticism of the science that human activities cause global warming. He's been attacked as an ideologue and is the target of an aggressive campaign by the League of Conservation Voters.
But he's certainly consistent.
The same can't always be said for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, the former political fundraiser for Bill Clinton and the ex-chair of Democratic National Committee. McAuliffe is benefiting from green group spending against Cuccinelli, and has made campaign appearances with scientist Mann. But he's also flip-flopped from his former positions on energy, and has been noncommittal about President Obama's sweeping new climate plan. In an unsuccessful 2009 bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, McAuliffe said he opposed drilling for oil off Virginia's coast, and said that as governor, "he never want[ed] another coal plant built." This year, running in the general election, he's effectively reversed both of those positions, endorsing offshore oil drilling and new coal production--while taking campaign contributions from a Virginia coal company. The website Politifact rated McAuliffe's turnarounds on both coal and offshore drilling "a full Flop."
It's not that environmentalists see McAuliffe as a green crusader. McAuliffe – a self-described "hustler" -- made his name as a political operative rather than a champion of policy. Instead, they're focused on ensuring that Cuccinelli, whom they see as an influential threat to efforts to combat climate change, doesn't take the governorship.
Still, McAuliffe has given Cuccinelli an opportunity--and the Virginia attorney general regularly levels the charge that his opponent's record on energy and other issues reflects a willingness to embrace the most politically convenient position.
"Virginia needs a governor they can trust, not someone who tells them what they want to hear," Cuccinelli said in a debate with McAuliffe on Saturday. "This is more of Terry Mcaulliffe saying whatever he has to say to get elected. This is playing around with the voters of Virginia."
McAuliffe in turns hammers Cuccinelli for his probe of Michael Mann--but so carefully without highlighting the issue of climate change. " My opponent sued the University of Virginia because he didn't believe the results of a scientist's report," McAuliffe said in the debate." It is very difficult to bring scientists and technologists from around the world to your state when your attorney general is suing their work product."
Energy and climate change are major issues for Virginia's economy –and, increasingly, for the politics of this purple state. In rural southwest Virginia, coal companies are a big employer -- and in 2012, although Obama won the state of Virginia, Republican Mitt Romney won 63 percent of the vote in its coal-rich Appalachian southwest after attacking the president for waging "war on coal." Offshore drilling is also gaining prominence in Virginia, where both Democrats and Republicans are pushing to make the state the first on the eastern seaboard to open up its waters to offshore oil and gas production. The warming planet is also a growing regional concern. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey named Norfolk, Virginia as one of the three U.S. cities most at risk of damage from rising sea levels due to climate change. A study of the impact of global warming on the coastal region of Hampton Roads, home to the world's largest naval base, found that rising sea levels could wreak up to $25 billion of economic havoc over time.
Cuccinelli injected himself into the national climate change debate when he launched a two-year investigation of Mann, a probe that was ultimately shut down by the Virginia Supreme Court. As attorney general, he has sued to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal pollution. In his book, "The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty," published earlier this year, Cuccinelli ramped up his attack on EPA's climate rules, warning that they'll force Americans to live in a future of brownouts and endless gas-station lines. Cuccinelli has campaigned aggressively in southwest coal country, decrying McAuliffe and Obama for being hostile to the industry. In May, he unveiled an energy plan centered around coal saying, "Virginia's coal industry is not just a key part of Virginia's history, but also its future."
That's good news for Virginia's coal companies, but terrible news for environmentalists, since coal pollution is the major contributor to global warming. National powerhouses from both sides of the energy and climate debate are spending heavily in Virginia. Last year, the League of Conservation Voters spent $14 million to ensure that "anti-climate" candidates wouldn't be elected to the White House or Congress. This year, the group is concentrating its resources into ensuring Cuccinelli can't win -- with the broader goal of sending the message nationally that denying the science of climate change is a losing position.
"If an anti-science politician like Ken Cuccinelli is elected governor it would put polluters in charge of Virginia's energy future and would risk costing Virginia opportunities in the new economy," wrote Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, in an email to National Journal. He added "We think Terry McAuliffe has the potential to be one of the greenest governors Virginia has ever seen."
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry, including some of America's largest coal companies and Koch Industries, the oil conglomerate run by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who have also funded think tanks and interest group that question the science that human activities cause climate change, are also investing in the race.
Overall, McAuliffe has vastly outraised Cuccinelli, hauling in $11.1 million in campaign contributions compared to $5.7 million for the Republican. Only the energy industry – chiefly coal and oil companies- has spent more to support Cuccinelli than McAuliffe. To date, energy companies have donated $202,000 to McAuliffe, and more than double that -- $564,589 to Cuccinelli. Of that, more than half--$285,744--comes from the coal industry, including companies based outside of Virginia, such as Ohio-based Murray Energy Group, the nation's largest privately-owned coal company, and Kansas-based Koch Industries.
McAuliffe is running a TV ad accusing the attorney general of helping two out-of-state energy companies battling with landowners in Southwest Virginia over royalties from natural gas extracted from their property. One of the companies, Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy, has donated $100,000 to Cuccinelli's campaign.
Earlier this month, McAuliffe made several campaign appearances with climate scientist Mann, at events in university towns like Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia.
"He's using Michael Mann because he's flip-flopped so totally on offshore drilling, so he needs Mann to protect his left flank," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "He's cut a lot of slack by liberals because he's the only alternative to Cuccinelli. That's how they thread the needle."
In an interview with National Journal, Mann, author of the book "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars," conceded that his appearances with McAuliffe don't necessarily represent an endorsement of the candidate's specific climate position. Mann's goal is to ensure that Cuccinelli won't be elected. The message at the McAuliffe-Mann joint appearances was less about the importance of climate change, Mann said, and more about the idea that Cuccinelli is a candidate who targets scientists.
"When I campaigned with him, we were talking about the stark differences between Terry and a candidate who persecutes scientists whose findings don't comport with his ideologies," Mann said.
Of McAuliffe he said, "If ever there was an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good, it's someone complaining about a candidate like Terry who respects science and will reward innovation. One may not agree with every position he has regarding energy and climate politics…but the alternative is someone like Cuccinelli who represents a scientist's worst nightmare. He rejects evolution and climate science and abuses political authority."
On coal, McAuliffe has had to perform an exceptionally delicate dance. "We have got to move past coal," he said during a debate during the primary stage of the 2009 campaign – a moment at which he needed to shore up support from a liberal base. "As governor, I never want another coal plant built. I want us to build windfarms, biomass, biodiesel and solar. That's my emphasis."
Now McAuliffe has changed his tune. In May, he visited the Bristol, Va. headquarters of coal producers Alpha Natural Resources, which has contributed $10,000 to his campaign. After the visit, he told reporters "I was over at Alpha Natural Resources talking about what they need done to make sure we have a healthy work force of coal, that coal can continue….We need to make sure we do what we need to, to make sure this vital industry here in Virginia continues to grow. I can really help them on exports; to open up those Asia markets in China and Korea. As governor, I want to help them create more jobs to help exports around the world."
It's not clear how that view squares with the historic climate plan Obama laid out last month, which is centered around a series of EPA regulations to cut carbon pollution from coal plants. Obama also vowed to end public funding for coal plants around the world – a move that could quash the global coal market McAuliffe touted at Alpha.
McAuliffe himself has yet to comment directly on Obama's climate regulations. "While we're waiting on actual regulations to be proposed, Terry believes any new regulations should balance the need to encourage clean energy with the fact that coal is, and will continue to be, a large portion of Virginia's energy mix," said Josh Shwerin, a spokesman for the candidate. "Terry would be seriously concerned about regulations that would significantly increase utility costs for Virginians or result in the closure of existing Virginia power plants."
Schwerin said that McAuliffe will be putting out an energy policy later this summer that is expected to include provisions to boost renewable energy in the state.