A Time magazine blogger reported Thursday that the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and most august environmental organization, accepted millions of dollars in donations from one of the nation’s biggest natural gas-drilling companies for a program lambasting coal-fired power plants as environmental evildoers.
The total take for John Muir’s conservation group? A whopping $26 million over four years from Chesapeake Energy and its subsidiaries, mostly through Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon.
The news rocked the environmental movement, sent the Sierra Club headlong into explanation mode, angered coal companies that the organization targeted with natural gas money, and had free-market advocates shaking their heads.
The episode “raises concerns about influence industry may have had on the Sierra Club’s independence and its support of natural gas in the past,” wrote Time’s Bryan Walsh.
The Daily Caller asked Chesapeake Energy spokesman Jim Gipson whether his company’s donations were made with the expectation that the Sierra Club would attack the coal industry, and whether the company has subsidized other green groups that oppose generating electricity by burning coal. Gipson did not respond to the email.
The Sierra Club launched its “Beyond Coal” campaign in 2001 on a shoestring budget, aiming to shut down as many coal-fired power plants as it could. McClendon’s money appears to have helped that campaign during a critical time when it was firing on all cylinders, lobbying against new power plant construction and working to close existing facilities, all the while hammering clean-coal advocates and blaming “big coal” for mercury pollution, asthma and assorted unforgivable ecological sins.
In 2007, the natural gas industry was also engaged in trying to persuade the federal government that its product was a more environmentally benign alternative to coal. Having the Sierra Club as a compatriot didn’t hurt.
“Back in 2007,” Gipson told Time, “Chesapeake and the Sierra Club had a shared interest in moving our nation toward a clean energy future based on the expanded use of natural gas, especially in the power sector.”
The company made its Faustian bargain with the Sierra Club’s then-leader Carl Pope, whose replacement Michael Brune put an end to it more than a year ago and refused an additional $30 million of Chesapeake’s money. The green group likely found that bitter financial pill easy enough to swallow, however, after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $50 million from his personal philanthropy in July 2011 for the anti-coal program.
On the Sierra Club’s blog Thursday, Brune explained his organization’s past lapse of judgment, saying “[t]he idea was that we shared at least one common purpose — to move our country away from dirty coal.”
But that was then. When the Chesapeake dollars began flowing five years ago, the natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking,” in industry-speak — had not yet become the environmental movement’s bête noire.
Now, Brune quickly added, “It’s time to stop thinking of natural gas as a ‘kinder, gentler’ energy source.”
A Charleston, West Virginia-based business newspaper reported that a Friday morning meeting of the West Virginia Coal Association ended with a new accusation of undue influence by natural gas industry insiders.
Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett told the meeting that Chesapeake has also funded the American Lung Association’s Clean Air Initiative. The result, he said, is that the lung health group has attacked the coal and oil lobbies while leaving the natural gas industry alone.
Scott Rotruck, Chesapeake’s vice president of corporate development and state government relations, holds a seat on the American Lung Association’s board. The association’s Clean Air Initiative website currently features a large Chesapeake Energy logo and describes a $500,000 matching-gift pledge by the company.
Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Chris Horner told TheDC that the natural gas industry’s financial support “apparently dictated, as opposed to followed,” the Sierra Club’s advocacy work.
“Here we see the group being paid so much money I have no idea how they could possibly spend it all, to tout gas, block — according to their own boasts — more than 100 coal plants and now force closure of many existing plants. Only to no longer receive support and coincidentally find gas to be a very, very bad thing. Huh.”
Food and Water Watch, another environmental group with a strong position against natural-gas fracking, declined to comment.
Ron Arnold, the executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, told TheDC that the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is a divide-and-conquer tactic to convince electric utilities to use natural gas instead of coal. But by 2010, he said, with the Sierra Club nearing its goal of making coal-derived power production burdensome and prohibitively expensive, “it backed out of the gas deal and suddenly refused to take any more dirty money.”
“How long will the Sierra Club’s grassroots members put up with this?” Arnold asked.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich was livid Friday, blasting the Sierra Club for “both its hypocrisy and its incompetence.”
“[I]ts support for gas as the bridge fuel has ironically dampened investment in renewable energy which the Club claims to support,” Popovich told the Platts energy newswire. “With friends like the Sierra Club, the renewable energy industry doesn’t need any enemies.”
At the helm of a crisis of confidence, the Sierra Club’s Brune may find himself with a shrinking pool of allies after President Obama fondly name-checked natural gas in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address.
“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” Obama said, “and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
“Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. … The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”