While President Donald Trump rolls back federal environmental regulations and climate commitments, some people are looking to states and municipalities to take a stand.
The jury’s out on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s stance.
“A year ago, we gave him a grade of a D+,” says Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “I think maybe he’s up to a C-, but I think his legacy — if the pipelines are built — he’ll be remembered for the pipelines.”
Tidwell was one of many hikers and environmental advocates who came to Capitol Square on Friday asking McAuliffe to reconsider his support for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. The natural gas pipelines would cover hundreds of miles in Virginia and cross the Appalachian Trail in two places. Opponents say that, by removing 38 miles of mountaintops in Virginia and West Virginia, the pipelines would ruin views and threaten water supplies along the way.
“We have a governor that has taken many positive steps toward the clean energy and safety of Virginia,” said Jessica Sims of Midlothian. “It is especially frustrating for the narrative coming from Gov. McAuliffe to be that he is helpless or unwilling to help in the fight against these pipelines.”
McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, says fighting climate change and the pipelines are not mutually incompatible. “Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal,” he says. “[It] was a significant part of the Obama administration’s vision for moving away from fossil fuels and generating cleaner energy.”
Coy notes that the governor has done more to advance solar and other renewable energies than any other governor and calls natural gas an energy “bridge.”
Environmental and progressive groups have lately praised several of McAuliffe’s moves. The governor announced a plan on May 16 to cap carbon in Virginia to combat climate change, and he’s joined a growing group of states committed to upholding the international Paris Climate Agreement that Trump backed out of.
Like other group leaders, Tidwell applauded the decision, but he called it a late one. “We’ve been asking the governor to do what he did for three years,” he says. “We told him he has a legal ability to do it, and he only did it on his way out in the last few months.”
The carbon plan would be carried out — or jettisoned — by McAuliffe’s successor.
McAuliffe also signed a law last week that delayed power stations’ closure of coal ash ponds. Environmentalists and outdoor groups lauded this, hoping it gave them time to change how coal ash ponds are closed. But another governor will have to enforce those changes as well.
“Again, he could have done this a year ago, and we’d be much further along in the legal fight,” Tidwell says.
Pipeline opponents were dismayed when, on May 24, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality backpedaled on what many thought were plans to review the hundreds of streams that the pipelines would cross on a case-by-case basis. Instead, it would rely on a blanket permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
People at Friday’s event called on McAuliffe to review permitting for each stream individually.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in December that McAuliffe was supporting the pipelines to attract three unnamed industrial projects that rely on natural gas. “It has made Virginia more attractive to some large industrial job creators,” Coy says. But some environmentalists see it as Dominion Energy’s influence. The company is one of the backers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“Today the major question is whether the [Department of Environmental Quality] and the governor will have the courage to stand up to Dominion and do their duty to us,” said Kathleen Johnston on Friday.
Recently, McAuliffe has been adding to his progressive résumé on other hot-button issues: abortion rights, LGBT issues and Trump’s immigration order. And, while rumors about his future political life swirl, another campaign is already feeling the effects of McAuliffe’s environmental stance.
Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for governor, have taken positions on either side of the chasm. Perriello does not support the pipelines and has pledged not to take campaign money from Dominion. Northam is following a more McAuliffe-like path to the nomination on June 13. He supports them, citing the economic opportunity pipelines afford.
Meanwhile, opponents on Friday delivered compasses to McAuliffe’s office. “He’s clearly lost,” Tidwell says.