WHEELING, W.Va. — Combating climate change has long taken a back seat to coal production in West Virginia, but in the hard-fought House race in this state’s 1st district, global warming hasn’t even made it onto the bus.
In interviews on Thursday, both the Democratic and Republican nominees for Congress voiced skepticism of the science behind global warming, and the Republican, David McKinley, flatly called concerns about climate change “an attack on coal.”
Climate change and the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency have emerged as key issues in this open-seat race, which is among the closest in the nation.
At a debate in the northern panhandle city of Wheeling, both McKinley and Democratic nominee Mike Oliverio said they were staunchly opposed to any version of cap-and-trade energy legislation, pledging to fight proposals that would penalize coal — the energy source central to West Virginia’s economy and sacrosanct in its politics.
Unwavering support for coal has been a campaign theme for Oliverio since he took out the incumbent Democrat Rep. Alan Mollohan in a May primary. He didn’t take a shotgun to the cap-and-trade bill — as West Virginia governor and Democratic Senate nominee Joe Manchin did in a now-famous campaign ad — but he came close.
“Certainly none of us in West Virginia support the cap and trade legislation that penalizes our coal industry,” Oliverio said during the Wednesday night debate, held in a community college building that once housed the B&O Railroad. “Coal provides West Virginia a competitive advantage. We can never give up that competitive advantage that we have as West Virginians to this low-cost source of energy. We’ll fight any measure that penalizes coal. We’ll fight any energy policy that coal is not the keystone, cornerstone piece.”
While coal production has declined in the percentage of the state economy in recent decades, it remains a potent political issue. The loyalty to the industry is so strong that McKinley has taken flak because a conservative group running ads on his behalf, the American Future Fund, is based in ethanol-loving Iowa. (He has dismissed questions about the association as “desperate.”)
Asked during the debate what concrete steps he could take in Washington to help West Virginia, McKinley headed straight for the EPA and its attempts to regulate carbon emissions.
“One of the first things to do is get control of the EPA,” he said. “What they’ve done is, they’ve just devastated the coal industry.”
Opposition to EPA authority cuts across party lines in West Virginia. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, has led an effort to pass legislation explicitly limiting the agency’s power.
McKinley went further during the debate in assailing the science behind global warming. “Physicists across America have been addressing this problem, and they are rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is no global warming,” he said. “Man-made global warming is an issue that has always been fomented by people like Al Gore and others.”
In an interview Thursday, McKinley cited critics who have called global warming “a fraud,” and said, “there’s not conclusive evidence to support it.”
Oliverio was less definitive, but he also voiced doubts about the science. “I’m a Mountaineer, and I disagree with a lot of the reports that came out of Penn State,” he said, in reference to the so-called “ClimateGate” research scandal. “I think a lot of that has been overdone and overstated.”
The hard-line positions may not please environmentalists, but they should come as no surprise to outsiders, said Dolph Santorine, a local GOP candidate and a McKinley supporter.
"We're a coal state,” Santorine said. “Get over it. It's not going to change."