Climate to be 2014 battlefield

Climate change and energy will be a major policy battleground in the 2014 midterms, advocates on both sides of the issue promise.

Republicans like Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) plan to go on the attack against President Obama’s  climate action plan, which they have dubbed a “war on coal.”

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They’re backed by conservative groups like the American Energy Alliance, which is already airing campaign ads attacking Democrats such as Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.) for supporting a carbon tax.

Green activists led by Tom Steyer plan to return fire.

The billionaire former hedge fund manager, who has poured his money into environmental causes, said Thursday that his New Year’s resolution is to make climate change a voter concern in 2014.

“This election year, more than ever, we must hold our leaders responsible for the role they play in the fight against climate change,” he wrote on NextGen Climate’s  website,  keystonetruth.com.  

Energy and environmental issues are expected to take a front seat in dozens of races across the country, from coal country in West Virginia and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) faces a tough reelection race just as she prepares to take up the chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee.

Noise surrounding crude oil exports and offshore oil development from coastal states is already being made, and Landrieu may push policy that evens the playing ground for coastal states when it comes to collecting federal dollars tied to energy development.

In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) faces a difficult reelection battle in a major energy state. On Thursday, he distanced himself from Obama's climate agenda, pushing for more oil exploration.

Open-seat Senate races in South Dakota and Montana are also places where energy will be a major theme as the natural-gas boom becomes a prominent debate in 2014.

A number of political players are promising involvement.

The Sierra Club plans to highlight differences between candidates on energy issues. The green group touts that in 2014 it will mobilize its 2.1 million members and supporters to continue the momentum it built in 2013 races in Virginia and Colorado, where candidates it backed won reelection.

“Americans widely support climate solutions like accelerating job-creating wind and solar energy growth, tackling dangerous carbon pollution from dirty power plants, securing strong standards to protect our air and water, and protecting our public lands from destructive drilling and mining — we will help ensure the contrasts between candidates on these issues are clear,” Sierra Club Director Michael Brune wrote in an email to The Hill.

McConnell, the most endangered Senate GOP incumbent, must prevail in a GOP primary and then fight off a highly touted Democratic opponent in Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of State.

McConnell has signaled he believes he can win by tying Lundergan Grimes to Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency.

He argues the EPA’s proposed regulations to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants would hurt energy jobs, and held listening sessions on the issue in early December.

A super-PAC supporting McConnell's reelection bid, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, came out with a new radio ad blasting Lundergan Grimes on coal earlier this month.

“Across Kentucky, thousands of coal jobs are disappearing. Obama's war on coal is hurting whole families and communities. But Obama says he needs more allies in Congress to finish forcing his liberal agenda on our country. That's why here in Kentucky Obama's supporting Alison Grimes,” a narrator says in the ad.

It’s not clear what candidates will benefit from Steyer’s backing, but he said NextGen Climate Action would look at races that could be won.

Some think Steyer could prove to be the Democrats' version of Charles and David Koch, the energy magnates who have poured money into organizations backing conservative causes.

“He is building a vast political network and seizing opportunities provided by loose campaign finance rules to insert himself into elections nationwide,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent article.

He isn’t alone, either.

A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity revealed the liberal nonprofit League of  Conservation Voters spent $15 million in 2012 backing "pro-environment" candidates.

And in 2013 the green group continued funding key allies like Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

The group also spent $1.7 million overall in Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2013, making it Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe's largest cash contributor outside of the Democratic Governor's Association.

McAuliffe ended up winning the race, which possibly featured the first "climate denier" attack ad, said Jeff Gohringer of the League of Conservation Voters.

McAuliffe set an example for future candidates “that when they lean into these issues, they will be supported by a strong political force,” Gohringer told The Hill days before McAuliffe was elected.

“We're proud of our success in Virginia and Massachusetts this year, and making climate change an issue in those races,” Gohringer told The Hill on Tuesday. “We want to build on that momentum.

“We're in the process of making decisions for 2014. Defending the Senate firewall to prevent the gutting of environmental protections will be a major priority for us,” Gohringer added.