The Senate race in West Virginia is quickly morphing from a slam-dunk win for Democrats to another potential upset. After legendary Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd died this summer, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin appeared the obvious choice in November. He enjoys wide popularity in the state, where he occupies much more conservative ground than Democrats in other states. Yet in the past few weeks, Republican nominee John Raese has managed to pull ahead of him in polls by a narrow margin, but a margin nonetheless.

Raese's latest ad attacking Manchin highlights an issue on which Manchin is not a friend of national Democrats: cap-and-trade. The ad singles out a bill Manchin signed in 2009 that mandates a certain percentage of the state's energy come from renewable sources. A narrator claims that the law cuts coal usage and that "it's Obama's cap-and-trade bill, West Virginia style."

Raese pops up to add, "Joe Manchin has thrown us under the bus. So imagine the damage he'll do in Washington with his friend, Barack Obama." Raese also gave an interview to RealClearPolitics this weekend in which he slammed Manchin for supporting cap-and-trade policies.

It just so happens, though, that Manchin did not sign a cap-and-trade law. The bill from 2009, called the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, does not cap emissions. It's essentially a renewable portfolio standard, not dissimilar from the ones that exist in 33 other states (as of 2009)--except that it's a lot more lenient toward the coal industry Raese claims Manchin is gutting.

The law requires that the state's big utilities obtain 10 percent of their power from renewable or alternative sources by 2015, 15 percent by 2020, and 25 percent by 2025. Unlike other states that set a minimum contribution from renewable sources, West Virginia's law allows utilities to comply by obtaining their required percentage solely from alternative sources. This works in the coal industry's favor, since renewable sources include wind, solar, hydro, etc., whereas alternative sources can include coal equipped with carbon capture technology.

Utilities are allowed to trade renewable and alternative energy credits amongst themselves, but since they aren't subject to a cap, they could conceivably emit even more carbon dioxide than before, as long as they upped the percentage of it that came from "clean coal" plants.

Manchin has repeatedly slammed Congress's attempts to pass cap-and-trade, and he is not beloved by environmentalists. Tony Massaro, the senior vice president of political affairs and public education for the League of Conservation Voters, says that Manchin is "way too coal-oriented for us. ... We think he's going to come in and consistently oppose the kind of cap-and-trade legislation the [environmental] community has pushed in the past. When we're pushing for renewable energy as a replacement for coal, we don't see that he is going to be working with us on that, either."

Massaro is confused by Raese's cap-and-trade attack on Manchin, since he doesn't see a difference between the two candidates' energy platforms. "What's the play here? They both are terrible on cap and trade. They're both in complete agreement," Massaro says. "Fundamentally, as voters are making a choice, I think they've got to make the decision based on something else, because they're in the same place."

Ivan Frishberg, political director at Environment America, calls Raese's use of the phrase cap-and-trade "ridiculously misleading. There's no cap, and there's no trade, not the way it's implied. It's not the same kind of market."

Yet the phrase itself has become a Tea Party and pro-business rallying cry, an amorphous specter that Republican politicians claim will kill jobs and cripple businesses. Raese's use of this attack tactic, misleading and unfounded as it may be, is likely to help consolidate growing opposition to Manchin in a state that relies on coal for a huge portion of its jobs and nearly all of its energy.

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