By Amanda Iacone
Virginia Statehouse News
RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell has been busy mining for dollars the past few months, and two of his top contributors are coal producers.
That fundraising legwork is expected to allow McDonnell to support candidates running for the Legislature this fall — all 140 seats in the House of Delegates and the Senate are up for grabs.
Democrats are hoping to maintain their two-seat majority in the Senate. But Republicans are making a strong push to wrest control and have candidates running in 34 of the 40 districts. This fight for control of the Senate is expected to make this election year one of the most expensive.
“The strong financial position of the governor’s PAC will allow him to support candidates this fall for the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate who support his positive jobs and opportunity agenda,” said Phil Cox, the governor’s senior political adviser.
More than 57 donors gave $10,000 or more to the governor’s Opportunity Virginia political action committee from April through June, the most recent campaign finance reporting period, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, or VPAP, a nonprofit that collects and analyzes campaign finance and election data from the State Board of Elections.
His top two donors, who each gave $100,000, are involved in the coal industry. Richard Gilliam is president of Cumberland Resources Corp., based in Wise. Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy is among the largest coal producers in the country.
Drilling in the shale formation has generated much controversy in New York and Pennsylvania because of the potential environmental damage from the process used to release the natural gas.
So far no horizontal drilling through the shale has occurred in Virginia, but as many as 13,000 acres have been leased by gas companies in Rockingham County and another 2,000 acres in Frederick County, said Kate Wofford, director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, a coalition of community groups serving six northern Valley counties focusing on land use, land conservation and transportation.
A land-use decision by Rockingham County has stalled drilling there, Wofford said.
But the governor’s push to make the state the “energy capitol of the East Coast” will invite all types of energy industries to come knocking on Virginia’s door, said Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, which supports legislation and candidates that would protect the country’s environment.
“When the governor comes out and says, ‘We’re for more energy from anywhere; anything goes,’ it signals to industries who have not been maybe as welcome in other states to focus on Virginia,” said Guthrie. “They are looking to Virginia as an environment with few regulatory barriers and opportunities to proliferate here.”
McDonnell has said oil and gas drilling, coal, nuclear, and even greener options, like off-shore, wind will be needed to supplant foreign-produced petroleum, and investing in Virginia-based energy will create jobs.
The governor supports safe and responsible natural gas extraction in southwest Virginia, said Jeff Caldwell, the governor’s press secretary.
“This includes shale drilling as a source to advance Virginia’s efforts to increase the nation’s energy security. While Pennsylvania and other states have more of these types of gas deposits in their states, Virginia must make every possible, responsible effort to identify natural resources and energy deposits that can benefit Americans and address our ever-growing energy needs,” Caldwell said.
Consol has donated to the governor’s political action committee in the past. Last year, the company gave $25,000.
Southwest Virginia is home to the state’s coal and natural gas industry. And Consol gave $10,000 to Delegate Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, who represents the coal-producing Buchanan County. The company also gave to $1,250 to Delegate Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, this year.
Consol also has given to Democrat candidates, including Sen. Creigh Deed, of Bath, who ran for governor against McDonnell. The company also has donated to the Democrat’s Commonwealth Victory Fund. Each received $15,000 from Consol since 2009, according to VPAP.
Consol’s Richmond-based representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.
Other companies that donated to the governor’s political action committee include Alpha Natural Resources, based in Abingdon, and Smithfield Foods, a global pork producer and processor in Smithfield, which each gave $50,000.
McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC had a total of $2.9 million on hand at the end of the second quarter reporting period.
The resources McDonnell has amassed will allow him to give to conservative candidates running, especially the state Senate. McDonnell has said a Republican-controlled Senate will allow him to advance policies, thwarted by the Democrats, in the areas of taxes, transportation and education.
The Senate Republican Caucus, meanwhile, has $1.1 million on hand, compared with the Senate Democrat Caucus, which has $864,877 on hand, according to filings with the State Board of Elections.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, raised the most money this reporting period with more than $1 million in his war chest. Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, has about $387,000 on hand, according to VPAP.