FILE: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File); Virginia Attorney General and Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, right (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama’s speech on climate change Tuesday added fuel to an ongoing feud over energy policy in Virginia’s race for governor, as Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe took the opportunity to put a relatively rare bit of distance between himself and the White House.

In his address, Obama said he would tell the Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. Those rules could have a significant impact on coal-fired plants and the coal industry generally, a key element of Virginia’s energy supply and a major employer in the state’s southwest.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican nominee, used Obama’s climate plan to attack McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats for their policies on coal. And McAuliffe offered some mild criticism of the administration’s potential actions.

“While we’re waiting on actual regulations to be proposed, 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,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “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.”

McAuliffe has altered his position on coal since his last run for governor in 2009. “We have got to move past coal. As governor, I never want another coal plant built,” he said during that campaign.

But this May, according to the Bristol Herald-Courier, McAuliffe said during a visit to Bristol that he wanted “to make sure we have a healthy work force of coal” and “to make sure this vital industry here in Virginia continues to grow.” (McAuliffe has also reversed his position on offshore oil and gas drilling, and now differs with the Obama administration on that issue too.)

Before McAuliffe commented on Obama’s speech Tuesday, Cuccinelli sought to lump the two Democrats together.

“Terry McAuliffe and President Obama are joining together to continue their war on coal, inflicting devastating and unnecessary regulatory burdens on Virginia’s coal industry,” Cuccinelli said in a statement issued by his campaign. “Applying new emissions standards to existing coal-fired power plants makes our coal plants shutting down a very real and scary possibility ...”

The Virginia Republican Party also organized a conference call on which U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, state Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico (Grayson) and Del. Terry Kilgore (Scott) all attacked Obama’s speech and McAuliffe’s 2009 comments. And the state GOP released a robocall urging that “folks here in Southwest Virginia stand up to Washington D.C. politicians like Barack Obama and Terry McAuliffe.”

But the McAuliffe campaign also fired back at Cuccinelli, linking Obama’s speech to the Republican attorney general’s lawsuit against former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael E. Mann.

“Ken Cuccinelli is the leader of an extreme group that denies science and attacks independent researchers,” Schwerin said. “Cuccinelli’s actions targeting UVA embarrassed Virginia, cost UVA over half a million dollars, and proved that he is willing to abuse his taxpayer-funded office to shut down scientific research that doesn’t fit within his extreme ideology.”

Schwerin also praised part of Obama’s speech, saying McAuliffe “was encouraged by the President’s efforts to prepare communities, including Hampton Roads, for impacts of increasingly strong hurricanes and flooding.”