Last week’s revelations about the 120-year-old organization’s hushed financial marriage to the natural gas industry — and its just-as-secretive divorce — have left some long-time supporters feeling angry, betrayed or misled. The news cut especially deep for activists who have spent years fighting the spread of shale gas drilling in states like New York and Pennsylvania.
The Sierra Club quietly accepted $26 million in donations from gas industry interests from 2007 to 2010 — years when the group’s national leaders were talking up gas as a cleaner, greener “bridge fuel” alternative to coal.
“I think it betrays all the grass-roots volunteers,” said Kate Bartholomew, a gas activist who is also an elected member of the executive committee that oversees the Sierra Club’s statewide chapter in New York.
The leaders should have opened up sooner, Bartholomew said.
“How do you hide $25 million?” she asked. “How do you not know where it comes from? That was my first response.”
New York state anti-fracking activist Walter Hang, president of the environmental data service Toxics Targeting, called the disclosure “incredibly embarrassing. … It basically looks like they’re shilling for the No. 2 natural gas producer in America.”
On the other hand, some greens are lauding the Sierra Club’s current leadership — in particular, Executive Director Michael Brune — for coming clean. And some hope the group, finally unburdened of its secrets, will be liberated to become a full-throated ally in the fight against fracking.
“This represents an important and seismic shift at the big greens in general,” said Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland.”
“I think this means the Sierra Club is saying we cannot go down the road of a gas-powered future,” Fox said. He added, “It would be great if our government followed suit and our politicians stopped taking money from the gas industry as well.”
Activist Bill McKibben, who led last year’s White House sit-ins against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, said he is “very glad to see the new transparency at the club. … I think it will enable the Sierra Club to take a foreground role in the burgeoning battle around fracking.”
By all appearances, though, coal is still the Sierra Club’s fossil fuel enemy No. 1 — the target of a decade-old campaign that the club says has helped stop more than 160 new coal plants and is seeking to get others retired.
That “Beyond Coal” campaign was the beneficiary of the gas industry donations, which largely came from “individuals or subsidiaries” of Oklahoma-based natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy, Brune wrote in his blog last week.
And, Brune told POLITICO, the Sierra Club isn’t giving the money back.
“We’ve got hundreds of communities around the country that are being made sick by pollution from coal-fired power plants,” Brune said. “That money was put to make sure we could help alleviate that suffering.”
Even for a group as teeming as the Sierra Club, $26 million isn’t chump change. In 2010, its net assets totaled just $50 million, according to tax records.
Brune said last week’s disclosure — prompted by inquiries from journalists — gives his group an ability to “have our hands clean” as the nation engages in a crucial debate about gas production.
“It’s clear that energy issues are going to be prominent all year long,” he said, noting the prominent shout-outs that President Barack Obama gave to energy in general — and shale gas in particular — in his State of the Union address. “We did not want to be restrained.”
Brune, a rainforest activist who took over leadership of the Sierra Club in 2010, said he soon persuaded its national board to cease accepting the Chesapeake money. The group also started a national campaign to “reform” the gas industry.
After disclosing the donations, the Sierra Club revealed during a national conference call with members on Saturday that it had taken “some disciplinary actions” in 2010 over the handling of the gas donation, Bartholomew said. Spokeswoman Maggie Kao declined to offer details, telling POLITICO that the group “can’t and won’t discuss personnel issues.”
Brune’s predecessor, Carl Pope, had been especially vocal in promoting gas as an alternative to coal, even making appearances with Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon. (Pope declined to comment last week, writing that he was traveling in India and “cannot track this at the moment.”) Some members also thought it telling when the Sierra Club’s top climate attorney, David Bookbinder, resigned in 2010 and went to work for the gas industry.
The Sierra Club was hardly unique among the big green groups in expressing a preference for natural gas over coal, although the spread of fracking has punctured holes in that consensus.
“People have had suspicions about the close relationship to gas,” Brune acknowledged. “Those suspicions have, I think, been an obstacle to the club being able to work effectively on the issues.”
That means giving more credence to the concerns of local activists in communities where gas extraction has been spreading, Brune wrote in his blog.
“Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on how to be sure we are using less,” he wrote, while condemning the gas industry as “under-regulated” and saying the group “opposes any natural gas development that poses unacceptable toxic risks to our land, water, and air.”
The Sierra Club is also going beyond the Obama administration in calling for mandatory disclosure of all fracking chemicals anywhere, not just on federal land, and says the practice should be banned entirely in some places.
“We’re going to do all that we can to make sure that expansion of fracking doesn’t result in sacrifice zones in any parts of the country,” Brune told POLITICO.
Still, last week’s disclosure had some people questioning how much credibility the Sierra Club can bring to the debate.
The criticism was especially unsparing from the coal industry and the United Mine Workers of America, which accused the Sierra Club of “hypocrisy.”
“Now we know why this so-called independent organization has been such an advocate for another form of fossil fuel and against using cutting-edge technology that would make using coal to generate electricity just as clean as natural gas,” the union said.
Some environmentalists also questioned why the group didn’t disclose the gas donations in 2010 — and accused Brune of, at best, misleading them about the rumored ties between the Sierra Club and the gas industry.
As first reported last week by the blog Corporate Crime Reporter, Brune’s response to some activists who asked him about rumors was: “We do not and will not take any money from Chesapeake or any other gas company.” That left unstated whether any donations had occurred in the past.
“What I said was accurate,” Brune told POLITICO.
He said he didn’t push to disclose the donations two years ago because “it would have been the distraction it is now. … I felt it was more important to get an actual gas campaign up and running.”
Brune said he knows he and the group will be under a microscope. “Because some people were dismayed that we took the money and others were encouraged that we walked away, my leadership … will be looked at closely and evaluated for what I do moving forward,” he said.
Lisa Wright, a former Sierra Club member from New York state who resigned last year because of the organization’s “high-level associations with the gas industry,” said this week that “the suspicions of many of us have been sadly affirmed.”
“The Sierra Club leadership needs to do much more than belatedly admit the gas industry donations, and as for hope for change within Sierra, it is unclear to me how that can happen if Sierra’s top brass cannot formally apologize to members and former members like myself who feel betrayed,” she said by email.
Wright also provided copies of an email exchange from May in which Brune told her that “I do want to be clear about one thing: we do not receive any money from Aubrey McClendon, nor his company Chesapeake. For that matter, we do not receive any contributions from the natural gas industry.” (That email was also first reported in the Corporate Crime Reporter.)
Other activists say they’re not giving up on the Sierra Club, although Bartholomew said she has considered it.
“Then I think back to John Muir and the reason the whole club got started,” she said. “The fundamentals that stand behind the organization are still valid.”