Democrat Terry McAuliffe has yet to take a position on new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations experts say will damage the coal industry.
Republicans are pressing McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, on his reticence ahead of Wednesday night’s debate with Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general and McAuliffe's Republican competition for the governorship.
"We want to get the experts in and all of us look at them together" before commenting on the regulations, McAuliffe said last week after EPA rolled out its new rules.
The regulations set strict limits on carbon emissions by coal power plants. Complying with them will require those plants to install costly technologies that experts say are not yet technologically viable.
Even Democrats have criticized the regulations.
"This rule would have lasting, harmful impacts on North Dakotans—not just the coal industry, but nearly all consumers as coal provides almost 90 percent of our state’s electricity," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.), who is already working with other senators on a legislative solution to stop the regulations.
EPA admits the rule would have a "negligible" impact on carbon emissions, but according to Jeff Holmstead, EPA’s top air qualify official during the George W. Bush administration, "the new proposal will still stop any new coal-fired power plants for the foreseeable future."
The rule has put some Democrats from coal-heavy states in the difficult position of either opposing the president or appearing hostile to the industry.
Republicans have attempted to capitalize on the prevalence of the industry in the state by tying McAuliffe to the new EPA regulations.
"As the Obama administration proposes even more regulations designed to decimate the coal industry, it's time for Terry McAuliffe to address his support for the war on coal," said Virginia Republican Party chief Pat Mullins in a statement on Wednesday.
McAuliffe has been criticized for reversing his position on coal energy since his unsuccessful 2009 run for governor.
"I never want another coal plant built" in Virginia, he said four years ago. But McAuliffe claimed in May that he wants to "make sure we have a healthy workforce of coal, that coal can continue."
Since reversing his position, McAuliffe has attracted financial support from a major lobbyist for the coal industry.
McAuliffe has avoided discussing energy policy at prior events during the campaign, including ones explicitly devoted to energy policy.