President Obama’s climate speech Tuesday received a mixed reaction, to say the least. According to eco-warrior Al Gore, it was “by far the best address on climate by any president ever.” To others, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), it was a “War on Coal.”
To Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, it was a squeeze.
In 2009 during his first run for governor, McAuliffe said, “I want to move past coal. As governor, I never want another coal plant build.” After Obama’s speech, his press secretary Josh Schwerin said, “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.”
McAuliffe now faces a dilemma. Northern Virginia won’t like his move away from Obama’s position, and southern Virginia won’t see his evolution towards coal as strong enough, particularly if Cuccinelli is successful in framing McAuliffe’s position.
There are some indicators that coal shouldn’t matter that much in Virginia. In the most recent data available, the Energy Information Administration reports that the Virginia coal industry employed 5,261 workers in 2011, and in 2010, only 371 active union workers.
But directly equating workers to votes is the wrong way of thinking, according to Virginia Democratic political strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders. “Coal is a culture. You understand what I’m saying? It’s been with us for a long time,” says Mudcat. “The Democrats don’t look at it like that, as a culture. They look at it as a commodity.” When asked how McAuliffe is going to do in the southwestern part of the state, which produces almost all of Virginia’s coal, Mudcat said, “He’s going to get killed out here.”
McAuliffe’s evolution on the issue is a nod to the coal community, which despite their small numbers is remarkably important to the country. The Norfolk, Virginia customs district accounted for 45% of America’s exported coal in March, helping set the monthly record for U.S. coal exports since at least 1980, according to the EIA. While Norfolk itself is blue, the surrounding coal producing counties tend to be deep crimson.
For Virginia coal, reaching out to the south alienates the north. “In Northern Virginia, any work that Terry McAuliffe is in odds with Obama is going to keep Democrats at home,” says Mudcat. “The reason that Barack Obama does so well in Virginia and can win elections is because…3 out of 4 people turn out to vote.”
Cuccinelli’s campaign recognizes this. Anna Nix, spokesman for the Cuccinelli campaign, released a statement Thursday: “Terry McAuliffe and President Obama’s War on Coal is more than just an attack on the Commonwealth’s heritage and the livelihoods of the people of Southwest Virginia…the President’s plan will raise electricity rates for consumers and that affects all Virginians.”
(Obama’s climate change speech Tuesday twice mentioned coal. First, Obama called for “An end of public financing for new coal plants overseas, unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity.” Second, Obama said that the Department of Defense, the largest energy consumer in America, will install “3 gigawatts of renewable power on its bases, generating about the same amount of electricity each year as you’d get from burning 3 million tons of coal.”
Republicans have latched onto a statement not by Obama, but one of his scientific advisors, Daniel P. Schrag, a geochemist who is the head of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. “The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants,” Schrag told the New York Times. “Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they’re having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.”)
After Obama’s speech, Schwerin, preempted the attack: “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.”
Neither Cuccinelli or McAuliffe has detailed their position on coal. When I asked the McAuliffe campaign what McAuliffe’s position was on coal subsidies and renewable tax credits, an aide sent me to a WUSA9 Cuccinelli interview. In it, Cuccinelli says the $20 million coal industry subsidy is “absolutely on the list” for elimination under his tax plan.
On his website, Cuccinelli states that he would “support development of a wide range of alternative and clean power options, including nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, without relying on government subsides, and encourage research in clean coal technology.” When asked to elaborate how Cuccinelli would support all of these energy options without subsidies, spokeswoman Anna Nix told TIME that Cuccinelli’s plan “would streamline the government permitting process to allow companies with new technology to become operational faster and more efficiently.”
Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are now searching for the same coal dollars. Cuccinelli released his energy plan in Bristol, Virginia, a town in the southwest of the state near the North Carolina border. Bristol houses the Alpha Natural Resources headquarters, a multibillion-dollar coal production company that has given thousands of dollars to Virginia politicians, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former Republican Sen. George Allen, according to Open Secrets. McAuliffe has also campaigned in Bristol and met with ANA.
Cuccinelli isn’t totally in the clear in southwestern Virginia. Earlier this month a federal judge found that an assistant attorney general has been assisting two natural gas companies that are being sued by landowners who allege that the companies shirked them out of millions of dollars in royalties. One of the companies is a subsidiary of Consol Energy, which has given over $85,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign.
The War on Coal has become quite a dirty business indeed.