9 Feb 2012

The opportunity lost with the Sierra Club’s admitting $25 million in natural gas industry donations

Written by theenergyfix

In a perfect world, there would be a quickly scalable source of electricity that would help with transition the world off of old, “dirty,” coal-fired power plants to renewables and other cleaner sources. Natural gas is such a fuel. But it does not come without some serious risks.

Take for example the debate over “fracking.” Here the industry deploys horizontal “hydraulic fracturing” to loosen natural gas deposits from shale rock formations throughout Pennsylvania, Texas and pockets of other states. While it uses toxic chemicals that represent a minute percentage of the water and other fluids flushed into these rock formations, the risks are certainly there, especially to area water supplies.

Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon. CREDIT: OK magazine

The Sierra Club last week admitted taking more than $25 million in previously undisclosed donations from the natural gas industry, most notably Chesapeake Energy and its CEO Aubrey McClendon (photo, left). Sierra Club was right to ‘out’ itself, albeit it in a controlled exchange with Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh. Executive Director Michael Brune, who has been interviewed previously here on TheEnergyFix, decided “to end the funding relationship between the Club and the gas industry, and all fossil fuel companies or executives.”

But think about how Chesapeake and / or the natural gas industry could have deployed those funds with the Sierra Club or some other environmental non-profit, out in the open, to educate the public on the health costs and risks of dirty coal plants at an even faster clip than is currently underway. The industry could offer more pro-active disclosure and more aggressive self-regulations beyond its disclosure of chemicals used on FracFocus.org.

The Sierra Club could have offered credible oversight and perhaps even some helpful guidance to improve the public’s confidence of the industry’s ability to regulate itself.

Both the industry and environmental organizations could score valuable PR points and forge a leading example of how  they could achieve a common goal that most informed Americans could agree with. And to think they would not need any guidance from lawmakers.

But the Club’s new policy now, effectively, makes that impossible. Or does it?

After the dust settles on this chapter of questionable leadership by Michael Brune’s predecessor, Carl Pope, it might be worth exploring a compromise approach.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. CREDIT: POLITICO

First,  here’s the most salient excerpt from the Sierra Club’s new policy, from a blog post by Brune (photo,right):

“We insist that the volume and content of all fracking fluids and flowback should be disclosed, and that all toxics should be eliminated. There should be proper treatment, management, and disposal of both fracking fluids and toxic flowback. Fracking should not be permitted unless it can be demonstrated that drinking water is protected and that all cumulative impacts can be mitigated. And, of course, many beautiful areas and important watersheds across this country should be off-limits to drilling.”

First, actually eliminating “all toxics” from fracking is probably impossible if the industry is to achieve a similar success by flushing and extracting natural gas from shale deposits. Such a cooperation would need to recognize that.

Next, prohibiting fracking “unless it can be demonstrated that drinking water is protected and that all cumulative impacts can be mitigated” leaves a lot to one’s discretion. And that makes it very difficult to reach a common definition or standard of compliance.

Finally, prohibiting any drilling in “many (but not all?) beautiful areas and important watersheds” might be possible IF, and it’s a big if, one defines “beautiful” reasonably. What is beautiful to one person may be very different to another.

When asked about the possibility of a joint effort, Dan Whitten, the spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, recited its “commitment to the safe and responsible development ” of American natural gas, adding “our members are active participants in FracFocus.org.”

Sierra Club Press Secretary Maggie Kao asserted: “PR stunts like Frac Focus are not going to convince anyone who lives near a fracking site that their family’s drinking water is safe.”

Emails to Carl Pope and Chesapeake Energy have gone unanswered. If they respond, this post will be updated.


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