Sierra Club took $26M from gas industry to fight coal-fired plants

The Sierra Club disclosed Thursday that it received over $26 million from natural-gas giant Chesapeake Energy Corp. between 2007 and 2010 to help the group’s campaign against coal-fired power plants.

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Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Thursday that he learned of the funding shortly after beginning the job in 2010 and moved to end the arrangement.

He discussed the funding on the Sierra Club’s blog Thursday after Time magazine broke the news of the Chesapeake-Sierra relationship earlier in the day.

Here’s Brune:

At the same time I learned about the donation, we at the Club were also hearing from scientists and from local Club chapters about the risks that natural gas drilling posed to our air, water, climate, and people in their communities. We cannot accept money from an industry we need to change. Very quickly, the board of directors, with my strong encouragement, cut off these donations and rewrote our gift acceptance policy.

The revelation could nonetheless become a political sore spot for the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s biggest and most influential green groups.

It comes as environmentalists are increasingly battling hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural-gas method that Chesapeake and other gas producers are using widely.

The Sierra Club has been highly active in opposing construction of new coal-fired power plants and pushing for closure of existing units.

Natural gas competes with coal, which remains the nation’s biggest source of electric power but is seeing its position erode amid the country’s gas boom.

Brune said the funding from Chesapeake began at a time when Sierra was looking to natural gas as a lower-carbon alternative to coal to help bridge the transition to “clean” energy sources.

“The idea was that we shared at least one common purpose — to move our country away from dirty coal,” Brune writes.

But he said that as the Chesapeake money was coming in, Sierra Club chapters were becoming more concerned about hydraulic fracturing, dubbed “fracking.”

It involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to create fissures in rock formations, allowing trapped gas to flow. Green groups fear water pollution and other harm.

“By the time I assumed leadership of the Club in March 2010, our view of natural gas had changed — so I made sure our policy did, too,” Brune writes, noting that the group has become more active in battling pollution from gas drilling.

“By mid-August 2010, with gas-industry practices and our policies increasingly in conflict, I recommended to the Board, and it agreed, to end the funding relationship between the Club and the gas industry, and all fossil fuel companies or executives,” Brune writes in the blog post.

Chesapeake Energy spokesman Jim Gipson told Time that the company and Sierra “mutually agreed” to end the funding in 2010.

Brune said the funding came from “individuals or subsidiaries” of Chesapeake, one of the nation’s biggest natural gas producers. Time’s story notes that the funding came “mostly” from Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon.

Brune said that as the group seeks to replace coal, its policy now is also to “use as little gas as possible and work to ensure that the gas that is used is produced as responsibly as possible.”

“It's time to stop thinking of natural gas as a ‘kinder, gentler’ energy source,” he writes.

Brune joined Sierra after heading the Rainforest Action Network, a group that often takes a confrontational approach to corporations.

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