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Energy and presidential politics

Mitt Romney & Va Gov Bob McDonnell as "Friends of Coal"
Friends of coal: If Mitt Romney taps Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell as his running mate, the coal industry will be very happy.

We found out the hard way when my husband Erik ran for the Virginia state legislature* that too often issues within states and localities are drowned out by the political noise blared out across the nation from Washington by the news media. (Transition Voice readers will know Erik as our publisher).

It was 2009, and on the local campaign trail, almost all Erik ever heard, besides concerns about jobs, were questions on the federal health care bill, the cost of wars, and the US federal deficit, all issues he wouldn't be voting on were he elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

Erik didn't win the election, but the campaign wasn't a total loss. He was able to inject at the local level concerns from the progressive side that aren't often aired in our very Republican area (I won't say "conservative" since these folks adore Big Government except if it means stopping polluters and white collar criminals).

All politics is local

But we really ought to pay more attention to state government for many reasons, not least of which is to witness national party strategies at the local level. It's also worth it to keep an eye on alleged political up-and-comers, often groomed in state capitals.

And in this year of high stakes presidential politics, it's wise to keep a close watch on supposed vice presidential short listers for GOP presidential nominee-apparent Mitt "corporations are people, my friend" Romney. One of those short listers comes from my beloved home state of Virginia, current Republican Governor Bob McDonnell.

Friends with pockets

Like Romney, McDonnell also has a friends list.

Last week, McDonnell sent a warm Valentine to the coal industry during the Eastern Coal Council’s annual legislative breakfast held this year in Virginia's capital Richmond, where McDonnell delivered the keynote speech. For context, this outfit's motto is "Promoting Coal through Education and Public Awareness" and typical of their educational materials is a link to a report called 75 Reasons to be Skeptical of "Global Warming," available on numerous right-wing and pro-fossil fuel websites.

Since taking office, McDonnell has touted the idea of making The Old Dominion “the energy capital of the East Coast.” A big fan of making Virginia the first East Coast state to allow off-shore oil drilling, McDonnell seems unconcerned about the massive infrastructural requirements and dangers to beach tourism, the fishing industry and even operations out of the massive Navy base at Norfolk that such a move would bring. It's like the Deepwater Horizon disaster never happened.

At the coal breakfast, McDonnell underscored his energy ambitions for Virginia and didn't forget to add that his administration is “a friend to the coal industry.”

Now, it's no surprise that coal plays a big role in Virginia politics.

Nor is it anything new that in the plutocratic form of government now enjoyed by the United States, energy companies are big political donors. What is new is that politicians are less and less ashamed these days to acknowledge dirty energy companies in public as their "friends."

But to give McDonnell credit, in his case, sending a carboniferous smiley to his BFF is just truth in advertising. Of all McDonnell's donors, Big Coal tops the list, with $100,000 last year coming from Consul Energy, and the same from Richard Baxter Gilliam, founder of Cumberland Resources (owned by infamous mountaintop remover Massey Energy, itself now a subsidiary of energy giant Alpha Natural Resources); Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., also of Cumberland, ponied up $50,000 in 2011. Cumberland's parent Alpha Natural Resources also gave McDonnell $50,000 last year. All told, McDonnell banked over three-quarters of a million dollars from Big Energy in the 2011-12 reporting cycle, with the lion's share of that (more than $600,000) coming directly from Big Coal.

Have a coke and a smile

Now, no one's debating whether or not coal will remain part of the US energy mix for years to come, its carbon emissions, mercury spew and egregious mountaintop removal mining practices notwithstanding.

Of course, if you believe the analysis of Richard Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute (and I do) that coal is also at or nearing its peak, with poorer and poorer grades of it available to us while China, India and the rest of the world clamors for the stuff, then the urgency to prioritize clean energy alternatives amps up. Too bad, then, that would-be "energy state" Gov. McDonnell dismisses renewables like solar and wind as not ready for prime time.

Even worse, by denouncing the Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to control mercury emissions from coal-powered power plants as an “assault on the coal industry" and the jobs it allegedly supports, McDonnell falls back on the old GOP chestnut that any attempt to protect the sacred and ancient commons of clean air, soil, and water is a "job killer."

In typical GOP verbal jiu jitsu, McDonnell remarked at the breakfast that “We all know that an unnecessary regulation is nothing more than a hidden tax.”

Pushing limits to the breaking point

With the International Energy Agency having announced that the world hit peak oil in 2006, and the WorldWatch Institute saying to expect resource scarcity and harsh resource competition in the near future, in many ways the presidential election this year is shaping up to be a contest between Big Corporate and its centralized control of the economy through Big Energy on the one hand, and, on the other, a vision for smaller scale local economies (Made in the USA!) and powered by a mix of job-creating conservation initiatives and distributed energy.

President Obama must play a role here. Not that I regard him as a very effective guardian against the ravages of Republican politics. His fecklessness on myriad issues, not the least of which is failing to hold the allegedly Too Big To Fail banks accountable, doesn't earn him any points in my book.

At worst, Obama is patently complicit with domination by the 1% though he's marketed in a deceptively palatable package. At best, within the limits of today's presidency, Obama at least holds the line on the worst of the worst of the damage that the imperial and plutocratic class has sought to wreak in the name of "free trade."

But as the 2012 campaign proceeds, anyone who cares about energy should remain mindful of Virginia's Gov. McDonnell. I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP unveils him as their next "energy expert."

In truth, McDonnell is no more savvy on the complex energy picture as the world hits peak resources than was professional crazy person Michele Bachmann, who promised a return to gas at $2 a gallon in the event that she should take the White House.

And McDonnell is no more of a "straight shooter" on energy than Sarah "drill, baby, drill," Palin. At the coal breakfast, McDonnell joined the chorus of energy exaggerators including former GOP hopeful Rick Perry by proclaiming that the US was the Saudi Arabia of Coal, despite ample evidence that this claim is nothing more than well worn industry hype and that, just as the world is reaching peak oil, the US has now also reached peak coal.

Memo to them all: No amount of wishful thinking will turn a finite resource into an infinite one. And no amount of friendship with corporate masters will make the US a better place to live, a stronger pro-business economy or a more energy secure nation. In fact it's quite the opposite. Until our democracy is unshackled from corporate rule, we'll continue down a path that's dangerous and unsustainable while putting nothing in place to meet our energy needs as the decline of fossil fuels accelerates. (And this doesn't even deal with the global warming side of things).

We continue waffling on clean energy infrastructure at our peril, even if it won't "save" us or ensure continuation of the excessive paradigm to which we've become grossly accustomed.

One of our last lifeboats may be if Big Coal and Big Oil are beaten back this election cycle. And that's got to start at the state level, exposing corporate lackeys like McDonnell for what they are while demanding that the clean energy economy move to the center of our political landscape as the key issue for the near and long term success of our country.

--Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

* Erik has since become an Independent and is running for local City Council. Let's hope he doesn't get grilled on guns, gays, and God, all issues that this august body isn't likely to take up anytime soon.

Editorial Notes: Lindsay Curren is Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice, an online peak oil magazine. She also writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog. Follow her on Twitter @LindsaysList.

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