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USA: Thanks, Sierra Club, For Coming Clean on Natural Gas

This morning we’re learning that the Sierra Club received $30 million from a natural gas company to fight coal, until its incoming Executive Director got the Board to agree in Sept 2010 to stop accepting money from fossil fuel companies. This is an important moment. I want to talk about its implications — and why supporting the Sierra Club now will send an important message! Plus how this ties in to plug-in cars, and at the end, the three things we should now expect of environmental organizations.

OUR TAKE: Here are our conclusions: “We’re glad Sierra Club has changed its policies, and people who agree with Sierra’s goals can show it with their support. It’s time for all environmental groups to disclose any funding from the fossil fuel industry. Companies and trade groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver a misleading message about how natural gas is clean — and natural! We need to get off coal as soon as possible, but we can’t replace it with an addiction to natural gas. We need clean renewable fuels harvested from heaven, not poisonous fuels extracted from hell. And we certainly shouldn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars subsidizing conversions of vehicles to run on a ‘slightly less bad’ fossil fuel when we could fix them to plug in.”

SOME PERSONAL HISTORY: I’ve been a Sierra Club member for decades. Last year as I became even more enthusiastic, I became a Lifetime Member (a one-time $1,000 helps the Club a lot http://www.sierraclub.org/­membership/ ). I had first come to Sierra through its spectacular wilderness calendars http://www.sierraclub.org/­store/ . Then I learned about its roots in John Muir’s advocacy for national parks http://en.wikipedia.org/­wiki/­Sierra_club#History . I grew to appreciate its unique position as a bottoms-up organization, whose chapters set policy for the entire organization.

I had some rocky moments after founding CalCars, when one of the Club’s DC policy leaders kept dissing EVs as dirty because some electricity comes from coal; when the Club barred EV advocates from its Sierra Summit; when it pitched Ford’s non-pluggable hybrid SUVs to its members; and when the former Executive Director joined T. Boone Pickens promoting natural gas. (Details on all at http://www.calcars.org/­calcars-news/­1056.html .) I felt a true breath of fresh air when Michael Brune, former Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network (a fearless grassroots group that truly lives up its name) became the new ED; when the Beyond Coal Campaign http://www.beyondcoal.org started racking up wins; and when the organization launched the first truly energetic and staff-funded effort by an environmental group to promote plug-ins and combat misinformation, ably led by Gina Coplon-Newfield http://www.sierraclub.org/­electric-vehicles/ .

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Today the Sierra Club disclosed that since 2007, it had taken over $26 million from individuals or subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy, a large natural gas company. Upon becoming Executive Director in March 2010, Michael Brune started a review. And in August 2010, the Board decided to stop taking funds from all fossil fuel companies and executives — at that time, up to a quarter of its budget. Unfortunately, rather than announce the decision at that time, over the past year and a half, several times, the Club responded to questions by fudging responses that it “does not take” (present tense) such contributions.

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