Why Terry McAuliffe Is in a Box on Climate Change

The Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate has been trying to avoid taking a stand on federal global-warming regulations, but he soon won’t have that luxury.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe addresses the Virginia Energy and Opportunity Forum in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. McAuliffe used a forum on energy to attack his Republican rival for Virginia governor's positions on family law and other social issues. 
National Journal
Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
Aug. 29, 2013, 1:02 p.m.

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.”

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