America Is the Next Virginia

Often held up as a bellwether for red states shifting blue, Virginia’s as good a test case as any for the changing politics of coal.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
May 30, 2014, 6:24 a.m.

No soon­er did word spread that Pres­id­ent Obama would use his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to cut car­bon emis­sions from the coun­try’s coal-fired power plants than the politick­ing began.

The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce pub­lished a scath­ing re­port. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency fired back. Politico doc­u­mented the spat. Lath­er, rinse, re­peat.

With Obama­care’s woes ap­par­ently solved for the mo­ment, and the Benghazi scan­dal feel­ing in­creas­ingly ab­struse, con­ser­vat­ives are look­ing for a new point of con­flag­ra­tion in the run-up to elec­tions this fall — and the new EPA reg­u­la­tions on car­bon emis­sions from ex­ist­ing power plants, to be re­leased on Monday, look like prom­ising fod­der.

The new cli­mate reg­u­la­tions, as New York magazine’s Jonath­an Chait ob­served, of­fer few ob­vi­ous tan­gible selling points for Demo­crats. In­stead, the reg­u­la­tions could mean the loss of jobs and the decim­a­tion of whole towns where live­li­hoods de­pend on the coal in­dustry, as well as high­er en­ergy costs for av­er­age Amer­ic­ans. Re­pub­lic­ans hope to make these con­sequences an al­batross around Demo­crats’ necks this year.

And yet there’s good reas­on to think the dooms­day elect­or­al pre­dic­tions are wrong — that Obama’s coal-fired power-plant reg­u­la­tions, while he’s painted them as a “mor­al ob­lig­a­tion,” are not in fact some sort of polit­ic­al hara-kiri ahead of elec­tions in 2014. To un­der­stand why, con­sider the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race.

While its re­li­ance on coal for power gen­er­a­tion is lower than some oth­er states, Vir­gin­ia ranks 14th in the coun­try for coal pro­duc­tion. And the sur­round­ing coal in­dustry has tra­di­tion­ally played no small role in shap­ing the state’s polit­ic­al land­scape. That’s chan­ging though, and last year’s gov­ernor’s race between Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe and Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli shows why.

The back­drop should sound fa­mil­i­ar: In Septem­ber of 2013, Obama had just rolled out a sep­ar­ate pre­lim­in­ary reg­u­la­tion re­strict­ing green­house-gas emis­sions for fu­ture coal-fired power plants. The back­lash from the coal in­dustry was in­tense, and Cuc­cinelli was quick use it to his ad­vant­age.

“Barack Obama’s war on coal is in­tensi­fy­ing,” said a voice one Cuc­cinelli at­tack ad. “McAul­iffe would side with Obama and kill Vir­gin­ia coal, Vir­gin­ia jobs.”

McAul­iffe re­spon­ded by doub­ling down on his en­vir­on­ment­al po­s­i­tions. He sup­por­ted the reg­u­la­tions, while be­ing care­ful to not ap­pear overly ant­ag­on­ist­ic to­ward coal. “Vir­gin­ia needs to seize the op­por­tun­ity to de­vel­op and de­ploy clean­er en­ergy tech­no­lo­gies that will grow our eco­nomy while pro­tect­ing our en­vir­on­ment,” he wrote in a Politico op-ed. “Just as lim­its were pre­vi­ously set on mer­cury, ar­sen­ic, and lead pol­lu­tion, it’s time to place com­mon­sense lim­its on car­bon pol­lu­tion. And Vir­gini­ans agree with me.”

And so they did. Not only did McAul­iffe win, but he won on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues. In a Wash­ing­ton Post poll pub­lished in the days lead­ing up to the elec­tion, he held an 8-point lead on en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues spe­cific­ally.

So how did a guy whose third-largest donor was the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters (and whose fourth-largest was Tom Stey­er), win in a coal state? Vir­gin­ia has a bit of a com­plic­ated re­la­tion­ship with cli­mate polit­ics — Nor­folk, in par­tic­u­lar, is among the U.S. cit­ies most threatened by sea-level rise, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey. And McAul­iffe’s statewide ad cam­paign tar­get­ing his op­pon­ent’s cli­mate-change deni­al did not fall on deaf ears. Neither did his full-throated de­fense of noted cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mi­chael Mann, then at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia.

Of course, the situ­ation for na­tion­al Demo­crats isn’t com­pletely ana­log­ous to what McAul­iffe ex­per­i­enced. Obama’s ex­pec­ted car­bon an­nounce­ment doesn’t just con­cern fu­ture power plants: It will have very real con­sequences for ex­ist­ing ones. And his pledge to cut car­bon emis­sions by 20 per­cent could even­tu­ally shut down hun­dreds of coal-fired power plants around the coun­try.

But it’s also, as one Demo­crat­ic strategist noted to The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Greg Sar­gent, an op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats to draw a con­trast with a pres­id­ent who’s widely un­pop­u­lar right now. “I’m not sure at the end of the day wheth­er people in those states are likely to say, ‘This shows Demo­crats are try­ing to screw us,’ or, ‘I’m glad my Demo­crat is stand­ing up for me, and he will do oth­er valu­able things.’ Where this really nets out is hard to know. But we’ve been deal­ing with the ba­sic them­at­ics here for a long time.”

Mean­while, McAul­iffe’s suc­cess shows that em­bra­cing cli­mate reg­u­la­tions could be a win­ner for oth­er Demo­crats, too.

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