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Virginia's Wayne Powell: An Environmental Profile In Courage

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As the country begins to pick up the pieces after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the conversation is finally getting around to the question of why climate change wasn't addressed during the Presidential debates.

Perhaps that was why I was so impressed to hear candidate Wayne Powell , (who is challenging incumbent Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the seat he has held in the 7th District of Virginia since 2001) speak boldly and openly about the environment in his October 1 showdown with Cantor. Virginia is now being mentioned as a crucial swing state. This Congressional race is certainly one to watch.

It was the first such match up for Cantor in a long time. Powell may not be a polished politician like Cantor, and his self-effacing manner may seem folksy, but his military demeanor and substantial creds tell a different story. Powell is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate with a Masters Degree in Spanish, as well as a law degree. He is a retired colonel who went back into active service after 9/11, tasked with commanding a "specialized Army intelligence unit" in Washington, D.C. He describes himself as a small business owner, referencing his law firm, Powell and Parish.

I watched him challenge Cantor during the CSPAN televised encounter. He presented his proposal for building wind farms off the coast of Virginia--rather than drilling for oil. I contacted him to get a fuller picture of his concerns and proposals for the environment. He granted me an exclusive interview for Moms Clean Air Force .

Below are his answers to my questions, edited for clarity and space. In addition to his e-mailed replies, he prefaced his responses with an overview comment introducing his points of view.

"This week we are reminded of the power of nature. This is not a science fiction movie. This is now. If we don't implement a real renewable energy policy, this will not be the end of the "superstorms' in our country and the world, but the beginning. Last year it is estimated that the effects of Hurricane Irene cost $10 billion. Sandy is expected to cost between $30 and $40 billion. An overwhelming number of scientists in the world have come to the conclusion that the effects of humans on the planet, more specifically the "carbon footprint' we have--including the use of fossil fuels and the continuing use of fossil fuels--have long-term harmful effects on our planet. They will likely affect habitability sooner than we think."

During your debate with Cantor, you addressed how renewable energy, job creation, and protecting the environment could all co-exist. Could you elaborate on this?

"We have the sun available for our foreseeable future, and we know from developments in other countries that wind energy and the so-called renewables offer an alternative to the continued use of fossil fuels. Eric Cantor has received $218,250, fifth among House members, from big oil donors. His vision about future energy needs is as myopic as his acceptance of the campaign contributions--which continue to pay for his votes against renewable energy sources that could help the people he represents. Cantor and other Congressional representatives are encouraging the further development of the energy sources which have caused, and will continue to cause, the dangerous climate changes which our Department of Defense has deemed a risk to our national security.

I indicated during the debate with Cantor that we need the same type of concentrated national effort to convert our energy dependence from fossil fuels to the development of renewable energy sources, similar to when we directed our resources to send astronauts to the moon in 1969. But in the post- Citizens United political world of unlimited corporate contributions, any political consensus to address our energy problems is impossible to reach. If we cannot become energy independent, we will continue to risk natural disasters in our own country and around the world.  

The initial investment in renewable energy sources will be high, but well worth it in the long run since the damage we will suffer as a country will be inestimable if we don't act. It will also employ millions of low tech and high tech workers in this new industry--one in which the United States should lead.  The lack of political courage by representatives such as Cantor shows just how entrenched corporate control of the political system is through the power of campaign contributions. Given the undue influence of money on politics, instead of an informed discussion of energy independence and renewable energy, is a refusal by Cantor to even discuss any other energy form than the "clean air" regulations that limit coal production in Virginia."  

Coal burning power plants are a major source of air pollution. According to, Cantor received $73,844 from the industry, coming in sixth for members of the House. Are you concerned about the influence of coal and big oil in this race?

"In addition to receiving contributions from the coal industry, Cantor is among the top ten in receiving money from the gas and oil industry.  These industries want and receive Cantor's votes for their money--and he delivers. He has received the fifth highest amount of contributions from the oil and gas industries, and sixth from the coal industry during this campaign cycle. I have tried in this campaign to first expose the influence the fossil fuel industries continue to exercise over Cantor and his colleagues. Then, after exposing this influence, it is necessary to educate the public about the science regarding climate change and the ways in which developing renewable energy sources will slow this change. Particularly with regard to the air and water quality, a national mobilization and investment in renewable energy with concomitant tax incentives, should be launched in those very coalfields--to show that there are economical, clean, and cheap alternatives to polluting coal, oil, and gas."

Cantor supports drilling for oil off the coast of Virginia. You support building wind farms and getting off of fossil fuels. 

"We need to be concerned about the geography off the Virginia coast.  With the Chesapeake Bay and the extensive continental shelf off the Virginia coast, any potential disaster such as what occurred with the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf would have catastrophic effects on the environment, tourist business, and the entire economy of Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.  In addition, it is well known that the Navy and Marine Corps have sensitive facilities and defense communications hubs in the Hampton Roads/Virginia Beach areas, which would be affected by any movement to " Drill, Baby, Drill .' I doubt that Department of Defense would let drilling occur in the area proposed, based on the probability of impact on our national defense grid. There have been studies showing that off the coast of Virginia is one of the best areas for the establishment of wind farms. So the choice is clear from and ecological, economic, and national defense standpoint. Virginia should move toward renewable energy sources."

Virginia ranks 32nd nationally for air quality. You are next to several states, including West Virginia, which has air pollution problems. Cantor received a rating of 0 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. He has pushed back on clean air legislation. How would you differ?

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, and artist based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been published by (more...)

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