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.