Five years ago, Virginia’s political scene was abuzz with attacks on Michael Mann, a former climate scientist at the University of Virginia, who had explored the link between carbon pollution caused by humans and climate change.
Kenneth Cuccinelli, the state’s hard-right attorney general, used civil law to try to get at thousands upon thousands of emails that Mann -- who later moved to Pennsylvania State University -- had sent and received from scientists around the world.
The former attorney general said he believed the messages would show that Mann had perpetrated some kind of fraud on Old Dominion taxpayers because Mann’s view was that climate change is real and humanity has had a hand in it.
The University of Virginia protected itself from Cuccinelli’s effort, saying he was meddling in the research process. When Cuccinelli failed, another group, now called the Energy and Environment Legal, tried to get the same e-mails through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. That effort likewise failed.
So, what do Cuccinnelli and this obscure “Institute” have in common?
Both were funded by Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal producer based in Bristol. Alpha went bankrupt this summer, in part for spending $7.1 billion in 2011 acquiring Massey Energy, the notorious Richmond-based coal producer whose former chief goes on trial next month for safety violations that killed 29 miners at a West Virginia mine in 2010.
The Alpha bankruptcy has presented a treasure trove of documents showing just how far the fossil fuel producer was willing to go to fight regulators and quell the idea that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use among other causes is a major contributor to climate change.
Their arguments go against those of most of the world’s scientists. And the purpose seems to be to instill fear that scientists who research climate change will be subject to public and embarrassing witch hunts.
Alpha’s involvement in political campaigns is hardly a secret. It has funded a number of Republicans -- including Cuccinelli, to the tune of more than $100,000 in his 2013 gubernatorial race -- along with some Democrats. Alpha is one of the leading corporate donors in the state and its bankruptcy hasn’t slowed it down much, a review of Virginia Public Access Project records shows.
But what the bankruptcy process has showed is just how involved Alpha was with anti-renewable energy, pro-fossil fuel groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. Both are associated with the Koch brothers, powerful oil and gas men from Kansas who don’t believe climate change is occurring.
They also back the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes pro-business, pro-fossil templates for state legislatures across the country used to promote laws the Kochs think are good ones. ALEC appeared at the pinnacle of its influence until disclosures about its practices prompted major corporations such as Google, Microsoft and General Motors to head for the exits and stop funding it.
Another group that got Alpha funding is the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a Northern Virginia advocacy group that backs limited government and free market policies. It may seem ironic that the university created by Thomas Jefferson had to spend thousands of dollars defending its freedom to research science against the likes of a right-wing think tank with the same name.