"If a governor really wanted these ports, he could streamline the process [in the Department of Ecology], as well," Macfarlane said.
Neither Inslee or McKenna have a firm position on the issue, but several analysts said McKenna appears friendlier to the coal port option. In a debate this summer, McKenna said coal would travel through Washington on its way to a Canadian port if the state didn't build its own.
"Can these coal projects meet our strict environmental and health processes? If they can satisfy these strict standards, we need the jobs here," McKenna said at the debate.
Differences on renewable portfolio standard
Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, said the differences between the candidates on coal likely would become clearer after the election. The issue is extremely contentious now, particularly since many labor groups want the ports for jobs, he said.
Inslee and McKenna also differ on the state's portfolio standard, which requires utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2020. Inslee campaigned extensively for its passage while he was a congressman.
McKenna's plan calls for counting more hydropower as part of the standard and blending it with efficiency measures, so utilities get credit for conserving energy and not just building new power.
"That would gut the initiative and defeat the purpose of building new renewables," Cechovic said. His group is spending more than $700,000, the most in its history for a governor's race, to elect Inslee.
Todd Myers, an energy consultant who has advised McKenna, said the Republican candidate doesn't want to get rid of the existing standard.
Inslee, by focusing on tax credits and other financial incentives in his book and campaign, wants to pick business winners and losers, he said. Inslee "seems to be in love with certain technologies, and that is dangerous," he said.
The state Republican Party has sent out numerous press releases noting that some of the renewable businesses supported by Inslee in his book have faced financial troubles.
On hydropower, Myers said there are some years when large amounts of snowpack provides more water for generation than usual in Washington. In those years, it doesn't make sense to "dump water from dams" in favor of wind or solar, he said.
McKenna, he said, thinks it makes sense for that extra hydropower to count under the standard.
Washington already has a much smaller carbon footprint than other states that use a lot of coal. Lowering the state's emissions much more in the electricity sector is like "squeezing more blood from a turnip at this point," he said.
In his plan, Inslee notes excess hydropower capacity but emphasizes "virtual batteries, scheduled transmission improvements and power swaps" as the way to use the extra juice without cutting out other renewables.
His campaign has fired back that Mckenna is distorting Inslee's book. The campaign says the Republican is more likely to send wind and solar jobs to China and end Washington's status as a leader in clean energy.
Across the country in New Hampshire, the debate over climate change is similarly contentious.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch is retiring. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamatogne is in a nail-biter race against Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former state senator.
Lamatogne is pushing to follow New Jersey's lead and pull New Hampshire out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program limiting utility emissions in New England states, New York, Delaware and Maryland. To Lamatogne, the carbon-trading plan is a tax that is picking energy winners and losers, skewing the free market.