Kaine created climate commission and welcomed coal as Va. governor

By Emily Holden | 07/25/2016 08:40 AM EDT

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), arrive at a rally at the Florida International University Arena in Miami on Saturday. Clinton has chosen Kaine to be her running mate.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), arrive at a rally at the Florida International University Arena in Miami on Saturday. Clinton has chosen Kaine to be her running mate. Photo courtesy of AP Images.

The environmental community’s reviews of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president are in, and they range from "awesome" to "meh."

The mixed reviews appear to reflect a mixed record.

Kaine supports offshore oil drilling and fast-tracking natural gas export terminals, but he was also considered instrumental in the battle against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. When he was governor of Virginia, his administration backed one of the last coal plants built in the country. At the same time, he supported renewable energy and instituted the first-ever climate change commission in Virginia to bring together environmentalists and power companies to chart a way forward on cutting greenhouse gas levels.


The Natural Resources Defense Council called Kaine an environmental champion with an "impressive" record. The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund declared, "Awesome choice, Hillary! We’re thrilled." Several other groups, including NextGen Climate and Environment America, chimed in with their support, too. But Climate Hawks Vote summed it up with "In one word: Meh."

"Whether it’s coal, fracking, or oil drilling, Kaine has been there time and again with fulsome praise. And then he warns his constituents about sea level rise," the group’s leader, RL Miller, said in a statement.

Environmental groups that dealt with Kaine as governor between 2006 and 2010 largely see him as a moderate. And they say it’s important to review his work from that time. They point, in particular, to his administration’s handling of a permit for a coal plant that came online in 2012 as a key example of how he may be able to appeal to greens and industry alike.

Introducing Kaine in Miami on Saturday, Clinton painted the Democratic team as the polar opposite of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

"At every stage of Tim’s career, the people who know him best have voted to give him a promotion. And that’s because he fights for the people he represents, and he delivers real results," Clinton said. "Together, we are going to take on the challenges that are hurting Americans."

Kaine, sprinkling his speech with Spanish, which he speaks fluently, told the crowd about his path to politics, while also pumping up his campaign bona fides and promising a progressive future.

"I’ve never lost an election," he said. "I don’t mind powerful groups campaigning against me. That’s just like an extra cup of coffee to me, folks. It just gets me more excited. I’m 8-0, and I promise you, I’m not about to let that change, especially when Donald Trump stands in the way of progress on every single one of these issues that Hillary has laid out as part of her campaign, and many, many more."

Neither Kaine nor Clinton brought up climate change Saturday. But as Democrats kick off their convention in Philadelphia today, energy issues are expected to take a front-and-center role.

‘His climate record is mixed to poor’

Ask environmental advocates in Virginia about Kaine’s time as governor, and the Wise County coal plant is bound to come up.

Kaine’s administration approved permits for the facility, a 668-megawatt plant in southwest Virginia and one of the last coal plants to come online in the country. Kaine has claimed he was a huge supporter of the project, including in a campaign ad when he ran for Senate in 2012.

In the ad, he rode a helicopter over the facility and noted the jobs created there while flaunting his support of both fossil fuels and renewable power sources.

On the other hand, Virginia environmental advocates and those who were involved in contentious fights over the Wise County plant say air regulators Kaine appointed were strong opponents of the project.

Because of their pushback, the plant ended up with some of the strictest controls for mercury and sulfur dioxide in the country, they say. The facility also uses Virginia coal and waste coal, which is discarded by mining operations and might otherwise be left behind to pollute waterways. The plant also co-fires biomass.

The story of how the coal plant came to life offers insight into how Kaine may view the balance between environmental policy and continued fossil fuel use, sources familiar with his time as governor say.

"I think, at best, his climate record is mixed to poor," said Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

"It was arguably the top environmental issue of his tenure, and he supported it," Tidwell added of the coal plant. He said advocates at the time warned the Virginia state government that federal regulations for carbon were imminent, but Kaine didn’t listen.

But other groups that were parties to the Wise County plant process are happier with Kaine.

"In terms of the broader environmental track record, both as governor and senator, I do think ‘moderate’ is an accurate label," said Trip Pollard, a Richmond-based lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Pollard noted that for a Southern Democrat in a state where most lawmakers still won’t utter the words "climate change," Kaine could be considered moderate to progressive.

"This region is very different from some other parts of the country," Pollard said. "I think that you need to view Sen. Kaine’s record, at least as governor, through that lens. I think that his environmental track record overall is a fairly good one."

‘Follow the law’ on coal permitting

In dealings over the Wise County coal plant, Kaine advised regulators not to give way to ideology in considering the project.

During the permitting process, Kaine sent a letter to the state Air Pollution Control Board reminding it that it must follow the law in considering projects. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch story from 2008, Kaine said the board shouldn’t consider aspects of the environment other than air quality in its decisions.

Tidwell said Kaine was nonetheless a cheerleader of the project, although Kaine’s political opponents suggested he was not and said he was taking credit just to gain political points.

Cale Jaffe, who was a lead attorney on the project for SELC, said that "it’s noteworthy that he appointed people to the state Air Pollution Control Board who really fought for more stringent environmental controls for that plant."

Jaffe noted that original plans for the plant would have allowed 72 pounds of mercury to be emitted per year and the final deal set a limit of 4.45 pounds per year, a 94 percent reduction.

"At the time, that was widely seen as the most stringent pollution controls on toxic mercury," Jaffe said, adding that the air board also looked at ways to reduce carbon emissions, although the plant came online in 2012, before U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Kaine also may not have had much choice over whether the coal plant got built, some noted.

The state General Assembly had passed legislation a few years earlier finding that it would be in the public interest to build a coal plant in southwest Virginia, where many were still employed at coal mines. That bill may have paved the way for regulators to approve the plant.

Lowering Clean Power Plan goals

Among the other downsides environmentalists see in Kaine is that he supports offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast and speeding approvals of natural gas export facilities.

Kaine also joined current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in asking EPA to lower Virginia’s carbon emissions goals under the Clean Power Plan, arguing that the state had already done a lot to curb greenhouse gases in prior years.

EPA did loosen the goals, requiring Virginia to cut its emissions rate 32 percent between 2012 and 2030, compared with the earlier target of 44 percent.

"That was a major disappointment," Tidwell said. "It opened the door for Dominion Power to dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions from power plants."

Dominion Resources Inc., the state’s main utility, wants to adhere to an average rate of carbon emissions, rather than capping them outright. Some environmental groups believe that means the state’s overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions will grow as utilities invest in more natural gas.

Tidwell’s group and others are asking McAuliffe to push back on Dominion’s preference on how to comply with the Clean Power Plan if it moves forward despite court challenges.

Introducing ‘climate change’ to the state vocabulary

Overall, Kaine gets a 91 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters for his work in the Senate.

Several groups point out that Kaine also instituted the first-ever climate change commission in Virginia to bring together environmentalists and power companies to chart a way forward on cutting greenhouse gas levels.

Pollard was on the first-ever climate change commission that Kaine instituted in Virginia.

"I thought it was very serious and very important to begin grappling with that issue in Virginia, which prior to the creation of the commission, for the most part, had been completely ignored," Pollard said. "The main shortcoming of the effort is that it came very late in his term."

The group’s recommendations on energy efficiency and renewable power could have been stronger but were a result of compromise with Dominion and other companies, Pollard said.

When former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell took office in 2014, he discontinued the commission. McAuliffe has since reinstated the group.

Pollard also commends Kaine for his track record in land conservation, especially in transportation policy and in promoting more compact development.

Overall, he noted, "it’s really important for the national stage to realize even to this day in Virginia in the General Assembly, you can’t use the words ‘climate change.’

"It’s hard to predict what anyone would do in a different office, but I do feel like the bottom line is, as governor and senator, he’s been a fairly strong voice on environmental issues."