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In Obama's Backyard, a Climate Change Battle in Virginia Next Year

With Virginia's climate skeptic attorney general seeking the governor's seat and fossil fuel money pouring in, familiar battle lines are being drawn.

Dec 12, 2012
Virginia's Republican attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli, speaks at the 2012 L

For climate skeptics, 2012 was a bad year at the polls. President Obama won re-election, and several critics of climate science lost their Congressional races.


But just weeks after Election Day, they're already mobilizing for another electoral battle.

Climate and energy issues will have a major profile in the race for governor of Virginia that will be decided in less than 11 months. Energy titans like the Koch brothers are beginning to pour money into the fight, and environmental groups are developing strategies to counter the big spending likely from fossil fuel interests.

The coming year is expected to see Virginia's Republican attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II—who is known for his crusade against the science of man-made global warming—try to win the governor's seat over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and longtime friend of the Clintons, believes in climate change and policies to limit climate risks.

The battle in Virginia is a microcosm of the national debate over global warming. Home to more than 300 coal mines but also on the frontline of rising seas, Virginia is split along familiar lines—between those who are seeking to keep the coal industry alive and those seeking cleaner energy alternatives and climate change solutions. The once-reliably Republican state voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, due partly to a growing liberal population in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The campaign comes just as climate re-emerges on the national political agenda. After several years of silence from both parties on climate policy, Hurricane Sandy unexpectedly thrust the issue back onto the radar of politicians and the public. While Virginia escaped the worst of Sandy, thousands of residents along the state's coast experienced power outages.

"We're reaching a breaking point. The American people want ... a solution to climate change," said Sam Ricketts, a clean energy policy expert and former director of the U.S. House Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition. Ricketts worked to help elect perhaps the nation's greenest governor in November, Jay Inslee of Washington State.

"Cuccinelli doesn't even think there is a problem," he said.

The 44-year-old Tea Party favorite has called climate science "unreliable, unverifiable and doctored." He famously fought and lost a court battle to get the University of Virginia to turn over emails and files of Michael Mann, a prominent climatologist who worked at the university from 1999 to 2005. 

The alleged "witch hunt" put Cuccinelli in a category of his own, according to Aaron Huertas, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.

"There are a lot of politicians who will deny the reality of climate change, but there are very few who will take the extra step and personally attack scientists studying the issue."

In his two years as attorney general, Cuccinelli petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its "endangerment finding" that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health. He also filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration's fuel-efficiency standards. Both attempts were dismissed by a federal appeals court.

So far, just weeks into his campaign Cuccinelli has received $10,000 from Koch Industries, the Wichita, Kan.-based energy conglomerate run by billionaire oil executives Charles and David Koch, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign donations. Dominion, an electric and natural gas company based in Richmond, has given $20,000. The Appalachian Power Company, a mostly coal subsidiary of utility American Electric Power, has contributed $10,000.

Cuccinelli has received more than $77,000 from the energy and natural resources industry in 2012, more than from any other single industry.

It's just the beginning of a contribution windfall, according to Lisa Guthrie, the executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the state chapter of the national environmental group.

"Many people call Virginia the wild west of campaign finance," she said, noting that it's just one of four states with no limits on donations. "There are no restrictions on how you raise it, spend it or where it comes from."

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