Ladelle McWhorter is chair of Virginia Organizing. Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
On April 28, a coalition of clean-energy advocates gave Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) an alarming D-plus grade for his policies on climate change and renewable power. A week later, the governor marched off to the mountains of Bedford County for a tree-planting ceremony. He planted one chestnut tree and posed for photos to emphasize the importance of trees to our environment.
But local landowners and organizers with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League were there to yell about hypocrisy. The governor supports a massive new pipeline for fracked gas that would destroy hundreds of thousands of trees in that area. It would plow through farms, endangering drinking water.
Advocates increasingly say this is McAuliffe’s policy world in microcosm. He ran as a clean-energy candidate ready to fight climate change. But he has served as a mere planter of occasional trees. On clean energy, he’s supported minor measures on solar power, efficiency and grid improvements. Sapling policies. But when it comes to the dirty fossil-fuel industry, he has embraced massive projects that harm people and the environment.
Take hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The governor supports two pipelines that would bring this violently extracted gas from West Virginia into Virginia. The proposed pipelines would require the seizure of a 900-mile strip of public and private land. Worse, a recent study showed that leaking methane from the pipelines and the fracking rigs could trigger greenhouse-gas pollution nearly double what Virginia’s current power plants produce combined. The governor is just dead wrong when he says fracked gas is meaningfully cleaner than coal for the atmosphere.
No wonder the recent report card, released by our organizations and groups representing students and faith leaders, gave the governor a near-failing grade for supporting these dangerous pipelines.
And then there’s drilling for oil off the coast of Virginia. The Pentagon is against it, Virginia Beach has withdrawn its support, and the Interior Department shelved the idea for at least five years. And McAuliffe? He still wants to drill and is willing to risk a Deepwater Horizon-like spill here. Worse, the carbon pollution from drilling and burning all of Virginia’s Atlantic oil would equal 24 million more cars on our roads every year.
On the issue of sea-level rise and coastal adaptation, the governor got a B-minus on our scorecard even though he failed to endorse the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would create up to $250 million per year for flood relief statewide. Even with bipartisan support, McAuliffe has ignored this vital bill and it has failed to pass. Instead, McAuliffe takes credit for federal flood money that, while helpful, is insufficient. Meanwhile, Hampton Roads schools are forced to shut down and lose valuable classroom hours because of floods.
So people should listen closely when McAuliffe talks about all he’s done on clean energy and the climate. Is he announcing he’s reversing course on the real problem — oil and fracked gas — or is he just noisily celebrating the policy equivalents of chestnut trees? Is he committing real money to combat sea-level rise in Hampton Roads?
Here’s how McAuliffe could improve his dismal grades.
● Stop supporting offshore oil drilling.
● Support the Virginia Coastal Protection Act.
● Use his gubernatorial power under the federal Clean Water Act to carefully assess the widespread threat to our rivers, streams and wetlands from proposed gas pipelines.
● Immediately and unequivocally announce that he will not allow energy companies to increase greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants under the new federal Clean Power Plan. This program will survive court challenges, but the federal regulation is so flexible that the McAuliffe administration has the authority to either lower total pollution or let energy companies impose on Virginia a major expansion of greenhouse-gas emissions.
On a rapidly warming planet, where even the pope calls for fossil-fuel reductions and most countries have pledged to do so under the recent Paris accord, it is truly shocking what McAuliffe is doing. His policies on oil and gas would lead to the biggest rise in greenhouse-gas emissions in the state in a generation.
By any measurement, that’s a failure. And planting trees will not cover it up.