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Viewing Terry McAuliffe’s Enviro Record with Clear Eyes: In Sum, He Has NOT Been a “Climate Champion”


by Adam Siegel

Recently, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been making some news when it comes to climate change.

  • When climate-science denier Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, Gov. McAuliffe stepped up to declare that Virginia would act to address climate change at the state level.
  • Following an executive order earlier this year to examine what it would take for Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the report came back with a path to join RGGI via Executive action, which Governor McAuliffe has initiated.
  • Various press appearances and other statements highlighting advances in Virginia clean energy (e.g., deployed solar and the prospects for a two-turbine offshore wind demonstration project).

McAuliffe’s actions, like those noted above, merit praise for moving the ball forward in Virginia in the facing of mounting climate risks on the one hand and, on the other hand, improving clean-energy and energy efficiency economics.

Joining RGGI, in particular, creates real opportunity for Virginia. As a relatively polluting state compared to the existing RGGI pool, Virginia could:

  • Potentially draw in financial resources from other states to accelerate energy efficiency and clean energy across the Commonwealth.
  • See improved economic competitiveness with a cleaner, more efficient, and more reliable energy sector, along with increased attractiveness to clean energy/climate-leading businesses and people.

In sum – thank you Governor McAuliffe for taking steps that should see Virginia become an RGGI member under Governor Ralph Northam.

Of course, a healthy relationship is also an honest one, and an honest, clear-eyed assessment of Terry McAuliffe’s climate change record is, unfortunately, far from rosy.

Unifying behind Terry in 2013
Environmentalists united behind McAuliffe, strongly, in his race for governor in 2013, based on his defense of climate science and, even more importantly, the fact that his opponent (Ken Cuccinelli) was one of the worst Republican climate science denier politicians in the country. Among other things, as Attorney General, Cuccinelli had aggressively tried to use his government position to harass, intimidate, and damage climate scientists (and science itself) while doing the fossil fuel industry’s bidding.

From unity to disappointment?
For many, however, disappointment with Terry McAuliffe began soon after his election, with fossil fuel interests dominating the funding of his inauguration events. For many climate-aware constituents, the door(s) seemed to be closing — and the years that followed seemed to bear out those concerns.

Just a few examples of the disappointment and frustration felt due to McAuliffe’s shortfalls when it comes to climate action:

Simply put, Terry McAuliffe has not been a fierce clean energy warrior – let alone a climate champion, as this disturbingly fawning article incorrectly claims – through most of the past four years.

For perspective re: McAuliffe’s standing on climate and environmental issues, one can turn to a group of Virginia environmental organizations’ (led by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network — CCAN) work on a ‘“report card” in 2016, with 20 pages of serious discussion of McAuliffe’s energy, environmental, and climate policies and achievements.  The press release warned that McAuliffe was “close to flunking out on clean energy and climate” more than halfway through his term as Governor.  As of mid-2016, those organizations gave McAuliffe a D+ grade.

Following that, Lowell Feld commented here at BV:

…while the global climate crisis gets more and more urgent by the day … the cost of clean energy continues to plummet. Meanwhile, as the planet burns, is that the sound of fiddling I hear coming from the Virginia governor’s mansion? Or is it the not-very-dulcet sound of dirty energy lobbyists whispering in Gov. McAulife’s ears?

Either way, it’s unacceptable — note that a couple weeks ago, McAuliffe was “rewarded” for his pathetic environmental record with a report card giving him a D+ grade — and deserves to be drowned out by another, much more pleasant sound: that of thousands of outraged Virginians calling Gov. McAuliffe’s office, telling him to listen to THEM and not to the clinking of the fossil fuel interests’ filthy lucre.

Among many Virginians knowledgeable of clean energy and climate issues, a debate occurred as to whether CCAN was too critical or too generous to McAuliffe. Writ large, McAuliffe barely had anyone in these conversations arguing that he merited above a C-, other than in comparison to the GOP climate deniers and fossil fuel tools in Virginia’s legislature.

As McAuliffe finishes his term as governor and potentially considers a run for president in 2020, it appears that he’s striving in his last “semester” to boost his final grade when it comes to environmental issues. While much of that striving is rhetorical flourishes, moving Virginia into RGGI is substantial.  (Of course, if this can be done so easily by a Governor via administrative fiat, the question is why didn’t he do this years earlier?)  Also, McAuliffe merits credit for his Executive Order that led to determining how he (Virginia’s Governor) could take the Commonwealth into the RGGI without legislative action. With RGGI in mind, one can certainly see Terry having boosted his final environmental grade — perhaps even as high as a solid C.

The problem, though, as one long-time Virginia environmentalist put it, is that “while Executive Directive 11 leading to joining RGGI is one step forward on climate action, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) are two steps back.”

Meanwhile, many political observers believe that Terry McAuliffe is taking steps for a run at the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020.  To get there will almost certainly require a strong climate and clean energy track record. Unfortunately for McAuliffe, a solid C (or worse) won’t do the trick.

With just a few weeks left in his term as governor, there really is only one way for McAuliffe to seriously boost that grade: addressing the economic risks, local environmental impacts, and climate damages by coming out against Dominion’s proposed fracked-gas pipelines To date, McAuliffe’s strong support/cheerleading for these damaging and dangerous Dominion Power projects — the Atlantic “Trump” Pipeline — have been a significant drag on his grade.  Serious action on stopping these pipelines — to protect Virginia’s economy from the large economic risk of stranded assets, to protect Virginia’s natural beauty and environment from pipeline damage, and to (help) protect humanity’s future from accelerated climate change — will earn McAuliffe notice and credit from the expanding number of Americans recognizing climate change risks.

And that matters for Terry McAuliffe beyond the Virginia governor’s mansion. Simply put, fossil fools fund and power GOP science deniers — not potential 2020 Democratic Party presidential nominees.  For Terry McAuliffe, doing the right thing on the pipelines also happens to be the right thing for him politically. The question is, will McAuliffe change course at the last minute — or will he stubbornly stick to the wrong position he’s held all along?

  • A_Siegel

    Seen after writing/posting, a complementary piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch (http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/dyanna-jaye-column-as-mcauliffe-heads-to-germany-his-climate/article_eff7cde4-6d1a-5484-a40f-3f389d6da443.html): “As McAuliffe heads to Germany, his climate legacy is marred by a pipeline promise”. From Dyanna Jaye’s thoughtful piece, a parallel message to this post:

    “McAuliffe’s involvement in this delegation makes for a great headline. But the trouble for the Virginia governor is that his climate legacy is marred by contradictions and empty rhetoric.

    As governor, McAuliffe has issued executive orders to cut warming gases, revived the Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, and noted the “urgent threat” of climate change. Yet, at the same time, he has boasted about upping Virginia’s limit for greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan, and offered his stalwart support to fracked gas pipelines that would make climate pollution skyrocket. His recent move to include Virginia in the U.S. Climate Alliance has a lofty and familiar tune: big promises contradicted by an addiction to fossil fuels. In this critical moment, we need more than empty words and promises.”

  • A_Siegel

    Mike Tidwell, Executive Director of CCAN, made a powerful argument as to the pipelines & McAuliffe’s legacy in https://bluevirginia.us/2017/08/mcauliffes-biggest-legacy-fracking-pipelines-that-would-kill-jobs-and-worsen-climate-change

    “What people in Virginia and across America will best remember Terry McAuliffe for in years to come is his pending approval of two massive pipelines for fracked gas. Who, after all, could forget an industrial pipe-laying spree so huge that it would constitute the biggest land-clearing and land-seizing project in Virginia since the Federal Highway Program of the 1960s? And who, on a planet hurdling toward climate disaster, would forget two massive pipelines for fracked gas that will trigger new greenhouse gas emissions equal to building 45 new coal-fired power plants in the state?

    “These are just some of the astonishing impacts associated with Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. The two projects are proposed to run from the fracking fields of West Virginia and into Virginia, covering more than 1,000 miles.

    “But here’s the good news for McAuliffe’s legacy and the nation: an absolute final decision has not been made to build yet. McAuliffe can still say no to the pipelines during his final days this autumn …”

  • Jason Peterson

    If Terry McAuliffe thinks his record qualifies him for a promotion, he’s going to have an uphill battle on his hands. I have volunteer housing lined up for January 2020 in Iowa already and if enough folks join me I’ll get an AirBnB. Nothing would make me happier than to follow him around to events, setting people straight as to what’s rhetoric vs. actual accomplishment.

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