$26 Million Just Doesn't Buy the Kind of Loyalty it Used To
After years of working in concert with the natural-gas industry, the environmental superpower made its 180-degree turn official in May when it unveiled “Beyond Natural Gas,” a campaign aimed at curtailing production and usage that mirrors its ongoing “Beyond Coal” effort.
The difference between the two campaigns so far has been the public reaction. While being targeted by the Sierra Club is no laughing matter, given its political clout and fundraising prowess, “Beyond Natural Gas” has been greeted with disbelief, even eye-rolling.
That’s largely because the Sierra Club has a lengthy and well-documented history as an ally of natural gas. In addition to advocating for natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewables, the group accepted $26 million in donations between 2007 and 2010 from individuals connected with Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest natural-gas company.
“We are dismayed that this group is repositioning itself as an anti-gas group, going as far as to proclaim that it will lobby to stop all new gas-fueled power plants,” said The Denver Post in a June 10 editorial, “Sierra Club’s about-face on natural gas in Colorado.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain responded with a tweet: “Sierra Club loved nat. gas . . . now hates natural gas. True heart of darkness.”
The Wall Street Journal asked, “So why is the Sierra Club suddenly portraying natural gas as a villain?” in a May 30 editorial, “Sierra Clubs Natural Gas.”
Sierra Club national spokeswoman Maggie Kao insists that the group hasn’t strayed from its mission. Beyond Natural Gas is a “name change . . . meant to clarify our goal of moving off fossil fuels like natural gas and towards a clean energy future, and does not change our policy on natural gas,” she said in an email.
“The roll out of the Beyond Natural Gas campaign name only bolsters the Sierra Club’s commitment to getting off dirty, dangerous fossil fuels, including natural gas, as soon as possible,” said Kao.
In Colorado just two years ago, the Sierra Club lobbied for the state’s Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, which promotes the conversion of some Front Range coal-fired plants to natural-gas generation. Last month, however, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune told National Journal that the goal of “Beyond Natural Gas” is to halt the construction of new and converted gas-fired power plants.
“As we push to retire coal plants, we’re going to work to make sure we’re not simultaneously switching to natural-gas infrastructure,” Brune said in the May 3 article.
Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, accused the Sierra Club of engaging in “hyperbole and scare tactics.”
“It is disappointing the Sierra Club decided to turn its back on natural gas,” said Flanders. “It is unfortunate that this once prominent group is playing to the lowest common denominator of fear mongering without suggestion of a viable fuel alternative.”
The green group’s critics have attributed its change of heart to three factors: a shake-up in the top leadership, the boom in natural-gas production, and pressure from its base to oppose hydraulic fracturing.
Longtime Sierra Club leader Carl Pope, an advocate of partnering with industry on resource issues, retired as chairman in November. In January 2010, he was replaced as executive director by the younger Brune, who previously led the Rainforest Action Network.
The Sierra Club saw its membership drop 15 percent after the 2008 economic downturn, which was attributed in part to tight finances but also to competition from the new breed of environmental groups that take a more adversarial approach to the resource industry.
As other environmental groups ramped up their opposition hydraulic fracturing, the Sierra Club risked becoming an outlier within the movement.
Critics say the final straw was the boom in natural gas production brought on by fracking technology, with the subsequent drop in prices. The drilling bonanza from vast shale deposits has seen the price of natural gas fall from $8 to $2.50 per million BTUs, ending short-term concerns about supply and making the fuel far more economically viable than the renewable energy sources favored by environmentalists.
“At that price, the Sierra Club’s Valhalla of wind, solar and biofuel power may never be competitive,” said the Wall Street Journal editorial. “So the green left has decided it must do everything it can to reduce the supply of gas and keep its price as high as possible.”
Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance in Washington, D.C., called the Sierra Club’s approach “unhelpful to the conversation we need to be having about how we can sensibly achieve a more secure energy future for America.”
One group with reason to cheer the Sierra Club’s split with natural gas: the Colorado coal industry, which is now enjoying an “I-told-you-so” moment after years of being targeted by the enviro-gas alliance.
“The hard lesson the gas industry should learn is to be careful about such arrangements with your enemies, as the Sierra Club has shown its true stripes – clearly opposing any natural resource development,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association. “The anti-coal campaign, entirely the result of the gas industry’s political machinations, has split communities in Colorado and will ultimately weaken the gas industry’s attempt to achieve credibility as an energy source.”
(Valerie Richardson writes for the Colorado Observer, which originally published this piece.)