Virginia governor's race: EPA supporter narrowly beats 'war on coal' messenger

Voters in Virginia narrowly elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor over Republican Ken Cuccinelli II, who differed among other things on the future of the state's coal industry. Mr. McAuliffe supported new EPA regulations on power plants that will make it difficult for new coal plants to be bought. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe leaves Spring Hill Elementary School after voting, accompanied by his daughter Mary, left, and wife Dorothy on election day in McLean, Va., Tuesday.

[Editor's note: This story was updated to include the voting results.]

By a narrow 47-to-46 percent margin, voters across Virginia elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe governor over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II in a hotly contested race.

On coal, the two candidates offered starkly different paths forward for a state with a long history of extracting and exporting the carbon-heavy fossil fuel. Both candidates had the attention – and money – of interest groups on either side of the debate over America's energy future.

"The politics of energy and climate change have fundamentally shifted in Virginia," Navin Nayak, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters, which backed Mr. McAuliffe, wrote in a memo Monday, ahead of election day. "This continues a national trend that started in 2012, and previews how energy issues will play in the 2014 electoral landscape." 

"Virginia used to be a state where the coal industry shaped the political landscape," Mr. Nayak added. "That’s no longer the case"

McAuliffe broke ranks with other coal-state Democrats to openly support new regulations on power plants from the Environmental Protection Agency. It was a bold move for a region where EPA is sometimes mockingly spelled out as "Employment Prevention Agency," and the Obama administration is seen as waging a "war on coal." His election deals a blow to coal on its own turf, further dimming the outlook for a source of energy already threatened by cheap, plentiful natural gas.   

McAuliffe's opponent, Mr. Cuccinelli, took the opposite approach, trumpeting coal as a vital engine for job growth and pledging to fight the new EPA regulations.  

“Virginia is a coal state,” Mr. Cuccinelli said at a coal rally in Washington last week, as reported by Politico. “We can’t have a governor that isn’t ready to step up” for coal miners. “In Virginia, the war on coal is a war on our poor. It’s a war on our middle class. It’s a war on opportunity itself.”

The state ranks 12th in the nation's top coal producers, and accounted for 2 percent of US coal production in 2011, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Norfolk, Va., is home to America's largest coal export facility and accounted for 38 percent of US coal exports in 2011.

The EPA's new regulations on power plants would make it very difficult for any new coal power plants to be built in Virginia – or anywhere in the US for that matter. Released in September, the new rules limit the amount of carbon emissions from new power plants and would ultimately require new plants to use carbon capture and storage technologies, which are expensive.

But the biggest existential threat to coal, at least in the short term, is probably cheap natural gas, courtesy of the boom in shale formations in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and elsewhere across the US. Natural gas prices are expected to rebound next year, however, which could portend a comeback of sorts for coal.

McAuliffe initially stayed mum on his stance toward the new regulations, trying to walk a fine line between appeasing his Democratic base and being responsive to coal-dependent communities in Virginia's Appalachian counties. But when pressed on the subject last month, the businessman and former chairman of the Democratic Party came out in support of the regulations.

“I do, you bet," McAuliffe responded when asked if he supports the regulations. "What I’ve looked at, I support what we need to do to obviously protect our air and our water," he said as reported by The Washington Post.

The Virginia governor's race attracted significant contributions from both Virginia-based and outside groups advocating for various climate and energy issues. Consol Energy, a major coal producer, contributed over $100,000 to the Cuccinelli campaign. The Virginia League of Conservation Voters was among the largest of McAuliffe's contributors, donating $1.7 million to his campaign. The Sierra Club spent $500,000 against Cuccinelli. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer spent more than $2.4 million on television ads attacking Cuccinelli, according to The Hill

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