Virginia’s two major gubernatorial candidates vow to stay the course on the state’s efforts to curb Chesapeake Bay pollution — even if it means dipping into the state’s coffers to replace federal funding cuts.

Speaking at a candidates’ forum in Richmond Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and Republican Ed Gillespie each pledged to strike a balance between growing the state’s economy and protecting its natural resources; but they differed on the specifics. Both also took remarkably similar stances on two other hot-button environmental issues — pipelines and sea level rise.

Nearly 250 people came out for the Clean Water Forum, which was co-hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the James River Association. It was the first forum to focus on the candidates’ environmental views.

Northam, who grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, touted his background as a self-proclaimed environmentalist who, during his time as a state senator, advocated Bay-minded policies. He supported removing phosphorous from fertilizers and ending winter crab dredging in Virginia. 

“If someone is going to apply for a job, look at their record,” said Northam, who’s garnered an endorsement and $1.8 million in contributions from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and lobbyist for Republican causes, departed from some of the Trump administration’s environmental policies to cast himself as an advocate for local water quality during the forum.

“The Chesapeake Bay is not just a huge asset,” Gillespie said as he pledged to work toward pollution reduction goals as governor. “From my perspective, God has entrusted us with this beauty as a gem and a resource, to be good stewards of it. It would be a priority for me…to do everything we can to ensure that we continue to meet those goals.”

The gubernatorial race in Virginia has garnered national attention as a referendum on the Trump administration and a bellwether for 2018 congressional midterm elections. National groups on both sides of the political aisle have begun pouring money into the campaigns, with the conservative Koch brothers backing Gillespie and billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer supporting Northam.

The Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to many environmental programs that benefit the Bay, including eliminating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program. Both candidates backed the state’s Chesapeake pollution reduction plan and said they would fight for federal funding to stay the course — and, if necessary, find state funds to fill in the gaps.

“We can’t go backwards. We can’t take away some of the things that we have done and risk the health of the Bay,” Northam said. “Not only is it important for our quality of life, but it’s also important for our economy.”

The two candidates didn’t debate, but appeared separately on stage to answer identical questions. Gillespie agreed in his comments that the Chesapeake cleanup is a priority worthy of both federal and state funds. He even implied he could bring his political connections, namely, his relationship with the current EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, to bear to benefit the Bay.

“We cannot zero out the Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund,” Gillespie said, “and I think bipartisan support would help.”

Given the wide gap between the two major parties, Jeff Corbin, former Bay senior adviser for the EPA in the Obama administration, said he was surprised by how similar the candidates’ stances sounded on several issues Wednesday. He wondered whether they would both be able to follow through on some of their statements given pressure from their respective parties.

“They both said they’d make the Chesapeake Bay a priority,” Corbin said after hearing both candidates speak. “To me, it comes down to: Who do the voters believe?”

Hot-button topics

A black banner held up by demonstrators outside the forum at Richmond’s National Theater, spelled in white letters the controversial topic many wanted to hear the candidates address: PIPELINES.

Moderator Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, asked each of the candidates whether they supported the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which would cut across communities and waterways to bring gas to more of the state. Environmentalists and property rights advocates have opposed the projects, while others say they’re crucial to Virginia’s energy portfolio. 

While Gillespie has vocally supported the pipeline projects — which, he noted, should proceed with respect for the environment and personal property rights — some audience members were surprised to hear Northam come across as noncommittal on the subject.

“At the end of the day, we need to do what is safe and responsible with these pipelines,” Northam said. He added that, if the state and federal permitting agencies “do their jobs and deem (the pipelines) to be environmentally responsible and safe, I will support that. If they say they don’t like the way it’s affecting our streams and rivers, I will support that as well.”

“I was hoping he’d come out against the pipelines,” Jessica Sims, a Chesterfield County volunteer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said of Northam. But, she said, “I find him to be great on a lot of environmental issues.”

George Smith, another climate network volunteer from Richmond, said he wanted Northam to come across stronger against new pipelines in the state, especially considering his opposition to hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling.

As with the pipelines, neither candidate was ready to get specific when asked how the state should handle cleaning up the toxic coal-ash contaminants that have been accumulating at power plants for decades. They were on their way to being permanently stored at several plants near waterways until Gov. Terry McAuliffe pushed through a moratorium on new coal-ash storage permits and asked the companies to research alternatives.

Gillespie, who generally supports tax cuts and limiting the role of government, said he’s not necessarily opposed to offshore drilling or wind turbines off Virginia’s coast as part of an “all of the above” energy policy. But he doesn’t consider offshore oil or gas exploration to be a necessity any time soon and said he would weigh concerns raised about impacts to the state’s military bases and tourism industry, among others.
The importance of protecting Navy facilities in Norfolk loomed large in both candidates’ responses to questions about sea level rise, which both said should be a priority for the next governor. Gillespie said rising seas and sinking coastal areas must be addressed to ensure that military installations, in particular, can continue operating along Virginia’s coast.

For his part, Northam noted that he introduced legislation in the state Senate that instructed universities to begin investigating sea level rise and how vulnerable regions — from the populous Hampton Roads area to rural Tangier Island — could compete for federal grants to prepare for it.

“I used to work on Tangier Island…I know what Tangier looked like in the late ’70s and what it looks like now,” said Northam, a physician who in his younger days helped to repave the airplane runway there. “If anybody out there doesn’t believe in global warming or sea level rise, they need to go out to Tangier Island and see that that island is literally sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.”