In a Switch, Green Groups Are Outspending Their Industry Foes—And Winning

Democrat Terry McAuliffe has benefitted from spending by environmental groups in the Virginia governor's race.
National Journal
Oct. 26, 2013, 8:54 a.m.

No one in What­com County, Wash­ing­ton re­mem­bers any­thing like this. On Novem­ber 5, the res­id­ents of this rur­al county, pop­u­la­tion 205,000, will vote, as they do every year, for a new slate of county coun­cil mem­bers. This year, though, the county elec­tion — which could have a pro­found im­pact on the U.S. coal in­dustry, and on ef­forts to curb glob­al warm­ing — has drawn a na­tion­al spot­light. With it has come nearly a mil­lion dol­lars in out­side spend­ing, poured in­to polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees to in­flu­ence the race — in­clud­ing five and six-fig­ure dona­tions from a Wyom­ing coal com­pany and a group run by a Cali­for­nia bil­lion­aire and ma­jor donor to Pres­id­ent Obama.

“If, two years ago, some­body had dropped $25,000 in out­side ex­pendit­ures on a loc­al race, that would have been huge,” says Todd Donovan, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence at West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. “It’s an or­der of mag­nitude more than we’ve ever seen. It’s so much it’s hard to fig­ure out how they’re go­ing to spend it.”

What­com res­id­ents are be­ing bom­barded with fli­ers, ra­dio ads, phone calls and door-to-door cam­paign­ers ur­ging them to vote for or against coun­cil can­did­ates be­lieved to sup­port a pro­posed $600 mil­lion port, the Gate­way Pa­cific Ter­min­al, which, if con­struc­ted, would ship 48 mil­lion tons of coal an­nu­ally from Wyom­ing and Montana to Asia. Coal-fired power plants — the chief cause of glob­al warm­ing — are shut­ter­ing in the U.S. thanks in part to Obama’s new cli­mate change reg­u­la­tions. Coal com­pan­ies see the Gate­way ter­min­al as an eco­nom­ic life­line. En­vir­on­ment­al groups see it as a cli­mate dis­aster in the mak­ing. And the What­com County Coun­cil will play an out­sized role in de­term­in­ing the fate of the port: Over the next two years, the coun­cil will vote on two cru­cial sit­ing per­mits which, if ap­proved, could pave the way to the port’s con­struc­tion. If the coun­cil re­jects the per­mits, it could freeze the pro­ject for years, per­haps per­man­ently.

At the be­gin­ning of 2013, the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters scanned all elec­tions tak­ing place across the coun­try, and chose three that it be­lieved could have a ma­jor im­pact on glob­al-warm­ing policy. It then teamed up with a re­l­at­ively new group, Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Ac­tion, foun­ded by Cali­for­nia bil­lion­aire Tom Stey­er, an Obama donor who has led cam­paigns to pro­tect his home state’s cap-and-trade law, and to urge the pres­id­ent to re­ject the Key­stone XL pipeline.

“We iden­ti­fied three places where cli­mate was very clearly on the bal­lot. We want to show up and we have to play to win,” says Nav­in Nayak, polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters. The green groups chose to in­vest heav­ily in the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race, a June spe­cial elec­tion for Mas­sachu­setts sen­at­or — and the What­com County coun­cil race.

“Tom’s view is that cli­mate and cli­mate change solu­tions need to be on the bal­lot in a way they nev­er have be­fore,” says Mi­chael Ca­sey, a con­sult­ant with Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Ac­tion. “What’s com­mon to all three ef­forts is that Tom is in these races be­cause he sees a sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence between the can­did­ates.”

Here’s the twist: Typ­ic­ally, en­vir­on­ment­al groups are vastly out­matched in polit­ic­al spend­ing by the fossil fuel and in­dustry groups they op­pose. In the 2012 cam­paign cycle, for ex­ample, coal and oth­er in­dustry groups teamed to­geth­er on a cam­paign de­clar­ing that Obama and Demo­crats who sup­por­ted cli­mate policy were wa­ging “War on Coal.” The top-spend­ing out­side groups back­ing con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates in­cluded Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, which spent $176 mil­lion; Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, the group linked with the con­ser­vat­ive oil bil­lion­aires Charles and Dav­id Koch, which spent $36 mil­lion; and the Cham­ber of Com­merce, which spent $35 mil­lion. The League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, far and away the biggest-spend­ing en­vir­on­ment­al group in 2012, spent just $14 mil­lion. But this year, in the three races in which they chose to play, the green groups have out­spent the coal and fossil fuel in­dustry—and it ap­pears pos­sible that they’ll get a three-for-three vic­tory for their in­vest­ments.

THE MONEY

The What­com county race is un­usu­al in ways bey­ond its pos­sible im­pact on the glob­al cli­mate. Be­cause the coun­cil func­tions as a ju­di­cial pan­el — a sort of mini-court — mem­bers can’t pub­licly state how they’d vote on the coal port. But based on state­ments the can­did­ates have made more gen­er­ally about the en­vir­on­ment and eco­nomy, green groups are pay­ing for cam­paign ma­ter­i­al to sup­port four Demo­crat­ic and pro­gress­ive can­did­ates, while an out­side group fun­ded by coal in­terests is back­ing four con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates.

Wash­ing­ton Con­ser­va­tion Voters Ac­tion Fund, which op­poses the coal ter­min­al has to date raised $671,202, in­clud­ing $150,000 from the na­tion­al League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, and $275,000 from Nex­t­Gen. Spend­ing in sup­port of the ter­min­al is a PAC called Save What­com, which has raised $165,641 to date, chiefly with con­tri­bu­tions from a Wyom­ing coal com­pany, Cloud Peak, and an Ohio com­pany, Glob­al Coal Sales.

Op­pon­ents of the ter­min­al see the en­vir­on­ment­al groups, and bil­lion­aire Stey­er, as the big-money out-of-state in­flu­en­cers, musc­ling their way in­to a loc­al is­sue. “The oth­er side is us­ing out-of-state money. And the out­side money, that’s the biggest dif­fer­ence,” says Kris Hal­ter­man, a What­com County book­keep­er who cre­ated the Save What­com PAC. “If we were to lose we would be dev­ast­ated eco­nom­ic­ally.”

The group act­ively so­li­cited con­tri­bu­tions from the out-of-state coal com­pan­ies that would be­ne­fit from con­struc­tion of the coal ter­min­al. “It al­lowed us to put out fli­ers and phone calls with our mes­saging,” she says.

For now, the out­come of the What­com race re­mains un­cer­tain, since there is no polling in the loc­al race and the cash con­tin­ues to flow.

“A week ago, it looked like the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters was so far ahead, they had this thing,” says Donovan, the West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity pro­fess­or. But now with fresh coal money pour­ing in at the homestretch, “it could level the play­ing field. The can­did­ates could go to bed that night and not know the out­come.”

THE VIR­GIN­IA RACE

In Vir­gin­ia, green groups homed in on the gov­ernor’s race be­cause the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli, had emerged as a lead­ing na­tion­al skep­tic of the sci­ence of glob­al warm­ing, and of ef­forts to stop glob­al warm­ing policy.

Over­all, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Terry McAul­iffe has vastly out­raised Cuc­cinelli, haul­ing in $26 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions to the Re­pub­lic­an’s $16 mil­lion. En­ergy com­pan­ies and en­vir­on­ment­al groups emerged as the biggest spend­ers — with green groups once again out­spend­ing fossil fuels.

Al­though McAul­iffe, a former Demo­crat­ic fundaiser, is hardly known as a green cham­pi­on, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are back­ing him in or­der to en­sure that Cuc­ccinelli, who came un­der par­tic­u­lar fire from the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity after launch­ing a two-year probe in­to the work of former Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mi­chael Mann, would lose. After the Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors’ As­so­ci­ation, the largest single con­trib­ut­or to McAul­iffe’s cam­paign is the Vir­gin­ia chapter of the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, which donated $1.6 mil­lion to the Demo­crat. Nex­t­Gen gave $674,000. The Si­erra Club kicked in $144,000.

“People who don’t be­lieve in cli­mate change should lose their jobs,” says Ca­sey, the Nex­t­Gen con­sult­ant.

McAul­iffe was happy to ride the wave of the green groups’ sup­port. Al­though he’s nev­er been out­spoken about the need for cli­mate policy—and at times waffled on wheth­er he backed Obama’s cli­mate reg­u­la­tions — his cam­paign did run TV ads bash­ing Cuc­cinelli for his probe of cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mann, and ap­peared with Mann on the cam­paign trail.

On the oth­er side, the en­ergy in­dustry donated $922,619 — more than any oth­er in­dustry group — to Cuc­cinelli’s cam­paign. More than half that money — $509,714 — came from coal com­pan­ies, in bundles of $50,000 or $60,000. Richard Bax­ter Gil­li­am, a ma­jor donor to Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign, and the founder of the Vir­gin­ia coal com­pany Cum­ber­land Re­sources, donated $100,000. But for once, coal’s lar­gesse was out­matched by en­vir­on­ment­al­ists.

Mur­ray En­ergy Cor­por­a­tion, an Ohio-based coal com­pany that con­tends that coal has no link to cli­mate change, donated $80,000 to Cuc­cinelli’s cam­paign. “Mr. Cuc­cinelli has sup­por­ted the jobs in the United States coal in­dustry. His op­pon­ent has not,” wrote Mur­ray spokes­man Gary Broad­bent in an email to Na­tion­al Journ­al. Asked why the coal in­dustry had not come close to match­ing the en­vir­on­ment­al groups in spend­ing to de­feat Cuc­cinelli, Broad­bent wrote, “We have no com­ment on that.”

A MIS­MATCH?

In Mas­sachu­setts, the green groups in­ves­ted heav­ily in back­ing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ed Mar­key in his cam­paign for sen­at­or in a June spe­cial elec­tion. Mar­key, who won hand­ily, had already been a fa­vor­ite in that elec­tion, and it was hardly un­usu­al for Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat to back cli­mate policy. But Mar­key made cli­mate change his polit­ic­al rais­on d’etre. In his re­lent­less fo­cus on the is­sue, he emerged as something new: a cli­mate can­did­ate.

And Mar­key was re­war­ded. The League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters was the top con­trib­ut­or to his cam­paign, giv­ing $188,671, while spend­ing $821,000 on ad­vert­ising in sup­portd of Mar­key. The idea in that race, says Nayak, was “to show can­did­ates—if you talk about cli­mate, if you’re a cli­mate cham­pi­on— we have your back.”

So why didn’t the coal in­dustry spend more to pro­tect it­self in 2013? As with Mur­ray En­ergy, rep­res­ent­at­ives from sev­er­al coal com­pan­ies that had spent the three key races did not re­turn calls or emails, or de­clined to an­swer the ques­tion. In D.C., the Amer­ic­an Co­ali­tion for Clean Coal Elec­tri­city, which rep­res­ents most of the coun­try’s biggest coal com­pan­ies and which spent over $30 mil­lion on “War on Coal” themed ad­vert­ising dur­ing 2012, said elec­tions haven’t been its fo­cus this year; Obama’s coal-plant lim­its have.

“It’s an off-elec­tion cycle year,” wrote Laura Shee­han, a spokes­wo­man for the coal group. “The in­dustry is fo­cused on the EPA and try­ing to lim­it the dam­age its pro­posed and com­ing regs will have on jobs, busi­nesses and con­sumers who will bear the brunt of the con­sequences through high­er en­ergy bills.”

Shee­han’s point Is well taken. While green groups were able to make their mark this year in a hand­ful of races, it’s hard to see how they’ll be able to re­peat that ef­fort dur­ing next year’s con­gres­sion­al midterm elec­tions, or in the fol­low­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion cycle, when con­ser­vat­ive su­per­PACs and oth­er in­terest groups are ex­pec­ted to come back out with spend­ing in full force. Ac­cord­ingly, Nayak says his group is likely to re­peat its strategy from this year and pick a small num­ber of races in which cli­mate is­sues are clearly on the bal­lot and spend heav­ily on those.

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