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Clearing the Air on Natural Gas

"The Sierra Club's position could've been tougher and should've been tougher."

From 2007 to 2010, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign accepted more than $26 million from Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas producers. When new executive director Michael Brune learned of the donation in 2010, he turned away an additional $30 million that Chesapeake had promised and ended the Club's relationship with the company. Sierra editors spoke with Brune to clarify the Club's position on natural gas.

Why did the Club accept money from Chesapeake?
The idea was to use it to prevent more than 100 new coal-fired power plants from being built, which would have locked in coal as the dominant source of power in this country for the next half century.

Did the donation influence our position on natural gas?
No. The Club has strong firewalls between the funding we accept and the campaign policies that are set by our members and our volunteers. However, it has to be noted that the Club's position on gas could've been tougher and should've been tougher, and that's why we've taken steps over the past few years to make it that way.

What's the official position now?
We view natural gas as a significant source of air and water pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition to its large climate footprint, the extraction of natural gas is having a big impact on rural communities, state forests, and the landscapes that we've worked hard to protect. Our primary goal is still to retire coal plants as quickly as possible and replace them with genuinely clean energy like solar and wind. Investing in gas actually hinders deployment of wind and solar, so we want to leapfrog gas as we move to a clean-energy future.

What about recent studies that suggest that the extraction and burning of natural gas has a bigger impact on climate change than coal does?
They're alarming. Studies in places like the Marcellus Shale and Colorado have shown that the greenhouse emissions from natural gas are much, much worse than originally thought. Unfortunately, there isn't yet a comprehensive empirical analysis of the full carbon footprint of gas. So the Sierra Club—along with almost every other environmental group—is calling for a full study that documents those emissions and the extent to which they can be controlled or avoided altogether.

So we no longer view gas as a "bridge fuel"?
No. We don't need a bridge. The recent and dramatic decline in wind and solar prices means these energy sources are ready for prime time now. Wind energy is coming in at prices that compete very well with gas across the country. South Dakota and Iowa already get around 20 percent of their power from wind. Five states get more than 10 percent of their power from wind. And prices for solar panels have dropped to the point where solar can now compete with gas peaker plants in places where demand spikes during the daytime, which is most of the country.

What about the natural gas industry's plan to build 250-plus gas-fired power plants in the United States?
That's a huge problem. Over the past 10 years, the Sierra Club and our grassroots partners have done some of the best work in the history of the environmental movement in stopping a rapid expansion of new coal-fired power plants across the country. In the wake of that, it would be tragic if we then invested in 250 new gas plants. We are determined to stop the expansion of fossil-fuel production, and we're going to be a leading force to make sure that those plants aren't built.

Given all the problems associated with fracking, why doesn't the Club support a blanket ban on the practice?
We want to make sure that a strong policy on gas doesn't inadvertently cause a switch back to coal or a renaissance of nuclear power. We need to move beyond all dirty energy sources. In the meantime, though, we've called for a moratorium on all fracking in many states, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Michigan, until better safeguards are put in place.

What kind of safeguards?
For starters, we're calling for full disclosure of all the chemicals used in fracking and then an elimination of the toxic ones. We're calling for much more stringent standards for the water and chemicals that flow out of the wells, so that radioactive waste and carcinogens are handled responsibly. More broadly, we're looking to restrict fracking from taking place near drinking water supplies or around schools, state forests, national forests, and national parks. We're also trying to prevent the export of natural gas by leading the opposition against the building of liquefied natural gas export terminals. The fracking problems will only get worse if the gas industry increases demand by exporting it.

Some of the Club's anti-coal activists say we're coming down too hard on natural gas and fracking, and others say we're not doing enough. How do you walk that tightrope?
Changing how our economy is powered is not easy. It's challenging to get the mix exactly right and the pace right. Here's how I see the Sierra Club's role: First, if your water or your air is being threatened, regardless of the source, the Sierra Club will have your back. Second, we need to advocate for the rapid deployment of clean energy. And third, we need to think through the transition to clean energy, state by state and city by city. In developing that detailed strategy, we have to listen to and follow the people who are active on the ground. They'll help us find a way to avoid replacing one dirty fuel source with another and help us move beyond all fossil fuels to clean-energy sources that don't pollute and put more people to work.

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