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What the Coal Chemical Spill Means for the West Virginia Senate Race

Charleston, West Virginia was shut down for the past few days as the federal and state government have declared a state of emergency in the area. Restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and offices have been closed since Thursday when a chemical used to clean coal spilled from a facility and flooded into the Elk River, making the region’s water unfit for anything but flushing toilets. The contamination has reached far beyond the city into nine counties.

My family is from West Virginia. I’ve traveled through the area my whole life visiting relatives, and it’s hard to imagine it being shuttered. But that is the power of Big Coal. In a moment, just one aspect of the industry can threaten 300,000 people and undermine the region’s economy.

And yet the two candidates running for Senate are both staunchly pro-coal and against public safeguards. And they remain caught up in coal industry mythology about jobs and apple pie. But they are on the wrong side of history and even the polluters are starting to wake up – just today the American Energy Alliance pulled their attack ads against Congressman Nick Rahall for supporting carbon pollution legislation to show support for the West Virginia residents impacted by the spill. But, before you start to congratulate them too much, they also pledged to keep up their imaginary fight against a so called “carbon tax” in the future.

The coal industry fights public safeguards at a cost.  Scores of men have died in coal mines in the past few years, in part because the industry has blocked strong safety standards at every turn. Three men died just this fall during the government shutdown, when fewer safety inspections could occur. These fatal accidents take a heavy toll on the state. A study conducted by West Virginia University found that the economic cost of mining deaths is five times more than the benefits mining brings to the region.

There is also the reality that mechanization is a leading cause of job loss in the industry—not public safeguards. Even though West Virginia coal companies increased production by more than 140 percent in the last 30 years, they have eliminated 40,000 jobs. They didn’t cut these jobs due to strong environmental standards. They did it because machines don’t demand salaries.

Big Coal looks out for itself, not for the state of West Virginia. That’s why residents desperately need lawmakers who serve the public interest. The chemical spill offers voters with a useful litmus test for seeing whether this year’s senate candidates represent the people or the industry.

Are the candidates still parroting coal sound bites about jobs? Or have they realized the real costs of this coal-related spill?

Are they still saying the coal industry does its best to follow safety regulations? Or do they acknowledge that companies routinely flout them, like when Massey had 60,000 violations of environmental laws between the years of 2000 and 2006?

And are they still claiming coal is good for West Virginia? Or have they realized that coal is losing its market share and looking like a bad bet in a world of climate action and low-carbon energy alternatives.

These are critical questions for the state. The coal industry has a long history in West Virginia, but it’s time for a new era—one in which companies play by the rules, honor environmental safeguards and don’t endanger people’s health with toxic pollution and chemical spills. Voters should find out if their candidates will help deliver that future or keep the state stuck in coal-laden past. Now is the time for West Virginia’s political campaigns to reflect the reality on the ground.



New Year’s Resolution

Intro look at why 2014 is so important and how the enemies of climate science are real and not giving up. We can’t fight them dollar for dollar, but we have voters on our side.

Resolving to Combat $1 Billion Per Year

The December 20 headline screamed, “Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change.” It’s not exactly the “happy new year” message that a clean energy professional likes to hear as she looks ahead to the dawn of an election year. I always like to think that the environmental community is sort of small and mighty, but one billion dollars sure is daunting. Luckily, it’s the season of hope, of possibility and of resolutions — and I know that our clean energy activists are resolved in their commitment to address climate change.

The headline referred to a new study, published in the journal Climatic Change, which looked at the funding of “91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations which have worked to block action on climate change.” Over the course of the 8 years studied, the groups received about $900 million per year. While some of that funding may have been directed to other non-climate projects, many of those dollars went directly to fund activities like skeptics conferences and witch hunts and insults against climate scientists and to pay the salaries of climate deniers who could spout anti-climate change talking points to cable news pundits.

It would be easy to feel discouraged by seeing the numbers laid out in black and white. And I won’t pretend that these billions haven’t had an impact – inaction in Congress is evidence that they’ve had some success. There’s no question that we can’t compete dollar for dollar with these denying billionaires. But, they can’t seem to penetrate the place that really matters: the brains of American voters. Despite their billions, Americans persist in accepting the science and favoring action. For example, one recent poll found that three of five Americans say global warming is a very serious global problem, and two of three say it will hurt future generations either a lot or a great deal if nothing is done to reduce it. Even in deep red states, Americans support action to address climate change.

It’s a new year and it’s an election year. The deniers have failed to turn the public against climate science. But we have yet to fully succeed at mobilizing the public that so strongly supports climate action. I know many people would say that New Year’s resolutions are meant to be broken. But, we just can’t afford to let this one go. My resolution for 2014 is to make sure that every politician in America understands what their voters believe and to make sure they vote and campaign accordingly. Will you help us?

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Is LePage Ready to Run Clean?

Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, doesn’t seem to get it when it comes to climate change. Despite Maine voters’ clear support for reducing carbon pollution and acting to address climate change, LePage reliably blocks action and denies the gravity of the climate challenge.

LePage’s latest dumbfounding bit of denial was to focus on what he believes is the positive side of climate change. Speaking at a conference, he said,

“Everybody looks at the negative effects of global warming, but with the ice melting, the Northern Passage has opened up. So maybe, instead of being at the end of the pipeline, we’re now at the beginning of a new pipeline.”

While I am certainly a glass-half-full person, climate change is hardly an appropriate place for a nonchalant focus on one person’s perception of a silver lining. In Maine, warmer waters, ocean acidification and extreme weather are threatening clam populations and sea birds. Sea level rise and extreme weather events threaten the state’s coastline. LePage’s certainty on the upside of global warming is also interesting considering his previous comments that climate change is a “hoax” and a “scam” with the science unsettled. If the impacts of a warming world are so apparent in one instance, why not in the others?

I can only hope that LePage’s clumsy climate comments are a sign that he is joining the vast majority of Americans in accepting the truth of climate change science. Certainly many in his own political party, including 61% of non-Tea Party Republicans, accept the science. Perhaps LePage’s shift from denier to opportunist is a sign that he’s understanding his constituents’ views better. After all, polling conducted for the NRDC Action Fund found that 83% of Mainers wanted a reduction in industrial carbon pollution.

We will soon have a chance to see what Mainers think of LePage’s views (and actions) when it comes to addressing climate change and promoting (or obstructing) clean energy. LePage is up for reelection in November 2014 and will face off against Rep. Mike Michaud, a strong supporter of clean energy and climate action. In contrast to his opponent, Michaud says “Any potential benefit of allowing climate change to continue unaddressed is far outweighed by the danger of our failure to act.”

Michaud’s gotten the message that running clean works. Will LePage?


All Politics is Local…but so is Energy Development

Voters in three Colorado cities passed anti-fracking measures last month. This week the Colorado Oil and Gas Association announced it would sue two of those communities over their bans. Meanwhile, several state legislatures will turn to fracking bills when they return to session in the new year.

Industry executives and grassroots fractivists will be following these developments, but there is another group of people who should pay close attention: candidates running in mid-term elections.

America is in the midst of an energy boom. U.S. oil production has risen 48 percent since 2008 to the highest level in two decades. Clean power has spiked too. Wind energy quintupled in the last decade, and accounted for 35 percent of all new power generation capacity built in the U.S. in the past four years.

In the past, most energy development took place in lonely outposts and dusty plains. Today it is occurring on people’s property, in school yards, and in beloved community parks. One in 20 Americans now lives within a mile of a fracking operation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This changing landscape has major implications for elections: if all politics are local, energy development just got local too.

Voters may not be terribly focused on America’s fossil fuel policy or how we are going to fight climate change, but when a fracking operation shows up in their subdivision and starts behaving badly, people engage with state agencies and elected officials in ways they never have before. They start to care passionately, and they take that passion into the voting booth.

That’s what has happened in Colorado. Dorsey Johnson was content living in her home north of Denver until a towering frack pad showed up nearby, bringing truck traffic, industrial noise, and flares with it.

Rod Brueske says that after an oil and gas company installed a five wells across the road from his farm in Longmont his family experienced headaches, sore throats, and persistent nosebleeds. One night he woke up and heard one of the wells hissing. State officials inspected the well and discovered it was leaking condensate and other toxic chemicals. The company hadn’t installed parts of the well correctly, but like Brueske, residents often find that out the hard way.

“There are probably thousands of wells in Colorado just like this that are out of compliance because our state only has very few inspectors,” Brueske said. He may not have thought much about inspector/well ratios or inadequate oversight before, but now he might expect his elected officials to have something to say about it.

That goes for Republicans as well as Democrats, because party affiliation doesn’t protect you from the hazards of living next door to reckless fossil fuel companies. In the deep red region of Appalachia, for instance, the Tennessee Conservative Union is joining with local environmental groups to protest mountaintop removal coal mining. This collaboration is part of what Politico recently called an emerging Green Tea movement, in which Tea Party members join forces with environmentalists. The focus of most of their work together turns out to be energy.

Candidates running for office in 2014 can expect to see more strange energy bedfellows, more energy-related campaign ads, and more pressure to take a stand on local energy debates. These issues can be tricky to navigate. But research done by the NRDC Action Fund confirms that when it comes to energy issues, voters consistently prefer candidates who champion clean energy and stronger safeguards against dirty fuels. Just look at 2012. Up and down the ticket, voters overwhelmingly favored candidates who support building a cleaner, safer, energy future.

Right now, voters are focused on what that future looks like in their own communities. In Georgia, conservative and liberal groups alike want to expand solar power in their state. In Arizona, Representative Barry Goldwater Jr. is working leading a coalition aimed at removing hurdles for business and residents who want to install rooftop solar panels. Local efforts like these will likely play a role in midterm elections, and voters will reward candidates who promote clean energy in our communities.


“Braley Works for Iowa” on Clean Energy

“Braley works for Iowa” is the tagline on the campaign website of Senate candidate and Rep. Bruce Braley. When it comes to clean energy and climate change, Braley’s tagline rings especially true. The congressman has a history of working hard to bring attention and solutions to the energy and climate challenges that affect his heartland district.


High stakes

The Senate race in Iowa will be one of the most important races to win in 2014 and our opponents are already on the attack, buying up the radio waves to mislead the public about climate change and Braley’s record.  It’s a high stakes race for a state that will be profoundly affected by unchecked climate change and that has tremendous clean energy potential. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa currently ranks third for installed wind energy capacity and ranks seventh for potential wind energy production. Iowa wind power is capable of meeting 44 times the state’s current electricity needs, according to AWEA. That’s a good weapon for a state that could be seriously damaged by a changing climate. According to the state’s leading climate scientists, Iowa’s agricultural industry’s ability to “feed the world” is threatened by extreme weather, droughts and intense rain storms caused by a warming world.

Braley’s record

Faced with the energy and climate challenges and opportunities in the Hawkeye State, Braley is the right candidate to continue pursuing sensible solutions to move his state forward. In the House, Braley has a history of working constructively as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to promote progress on these issues. Braley has been especially focused on Iowa’s strong wind energy and biofuel industries. He has sponsored legislation to improve worker training in clean energy jobs, to extend wind energy tax credits and to end Big Oil tax breaks in favor of clean energy investment.

Running clean works in Iowa

Iowans want clean energy and they want action on climate change. Recent polling in the state has found that 80% of Iowans believe global warming is happening and that 73% support government action to reduce greenhouse gases from U.S. businesses.

global warming in iowa 

Running on these popular issues has a history of success. During the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama successfully used clean energy as a winning wedge issue in the state. As discussed in our Running Clean report, Obama regularly discussed wind energy at rallies, in advertising and on his Iowa-specific campaign website. Obama’s campaign manager credited the wind energy message as part of a factor in winning the state.

With his strong record on clean energy and climate change, it is clear that Bruce Braley is the best candidate Iowans can elect to represent them in the Senate in 2014. We’re looking forward to watching Braley show his colleagues how to “run clean” – and win – in the America’s heartland.