Feb 6, 2012 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This morning we're learning that the Sierra Club received $30 million from a natural gas company to fight coal, until its incoming Executive Director got the Board to agree in Sept 2010 to stop accepting money from fossil fuel companies. This is an important moment. I want to talk about its implications -- and why supporting the Sierra Club now will send an important message! Plus how this ties in to plug-in cars, and at the end, the three things we should now expect of environmental organizations.
OUR TAKE: Here are our conclusions: "We're glad Sierra Club has changed its policies, and people who agree with Sierra's goals can show it with their support. It's time for all environmental groups to disclose any funding from the fossil fuel industry. Companies and trade groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver a misleading message about how natural gas is clean -- and natural! We need to get off coal as soon as possible, but we can't replace it with an addiction to natural gas. We need clean renewable fuels harvested from heaven, not poisonous fuels extracted from hell. And we certainly shouldn't spend tens of thousands of dollars subsidizing conversions of vehicles to run on a 'slightly less bad' fossil fuel when we could fix them to plug in."
SOME PERSONAL HISTORY: I've been a Sierra Club member for decades. Last year as I became even more enthusiastic, I became a Lifetime Member (a one-time $1,000 helps the Club a lot http://www.sierraclub.org/membership/ ). I had first come to Sierra through its spectacular wilderness calendars http://www.sierraclub.org/store/ . Then I learned about its roots in John Muir's advocacy for national parks http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierra_club#History . I grew to appreciate its unique position as a bottoms-up organization, whose chapters set policy for the entire organization.
I had some rocky moments after founding CalCars, when one of the Club's DC policy leaders kept dissing EVs as dirty because some electricity comes from coal; when the Club barred EV advocates from its Sierra Summit; when it pitched Ford's non-pluggable hybrid SUVs to its members; and when the former Executive Director joined T. Boone Pickens promoting natural gas. (Details on all at http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/1056.html .) I felt a true breath of fresh air when Michael Brune, former Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network (a fearless grassroots group that truly lives up its name) became the new ED; when the Beyond Coal Campaign http://www.beyondcoal.org started racking up wins; and when the organization launched the first truly energetic and staff-funded effort by an environmental group to promote plug-ins and combat misinformation, ably led by Gina Coplon-Newfield http://www.sierraclub.org/electric-vehicles/ .
WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Today the Sierra Club disclosed that since 2007, it had taken over $26 million from individuals or subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy, a large natural gas company. Upon becoming Executive Director in March 2010, Michael Brune started a review. And in August 2010, the Board decided to stop taking funds from all fossil fuel companies and executives -- at that time, up to a quarter of its budget. Unfortunately, rather than announce the decision at that time, over the past year and a half, several times, the Club responded to questions by fudging responses that it "does not take" (present tense) such contributions.
The story started to emerge last week. An analysis by Forbes http://onforb.es/wMuGPh compares Sierra's response favorably to last week's Komen Foundation-Planned Parenthood controversy, and links to the Club's misleading responses to the Corporate Crime Reporter publication. Then Sierra got in front of the issue: Brune posted his explanation http://sierraclub.typepad.com/michaelbrune/2012/02/the-sierra-club-and-natural-gas.html (see many comments). And when Sierra gave an exclusive story to environmental reporter Bryan Walsh at Time Magazine, you can see the resulting favorable spin in the URL that repeats the headline: http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2012/02/02/exclusive-how-the-sierra-club-took-millions-from-the-natural-gas-industry-and-why-they-stopped/ .
MY RECOMMENDATIONS TODAY: Just as we saw last week with breast cancer screenings, it's up to individuals to step up to replace the millions from the fossil fuel industry. In the wake of this news, I urge you to JOIN the Sierra Club and GIVE to Beyond Coal (URLs above). Tell them you're doing so because they've come clean and you support plug-in vehicles -- and say CalCars sent you!
AMERICANS ARE UNDERSTANDABLY CONFUSED about coal, natural gas, and electricity. Here's our quick, non-technical summary: COAL is by far the worst in terms of greenhouse gases, mercury and other conventional emissions, mining's impact, dangers to workers, and the industry's power on elected officials and the media. (Each of those criteria cries out for a national dialogue.) NATURAL GAS, compared to coal, is better in terms of greenhouse gases and other emissions (especially when burned in new combined cycle electric power plants). BUT it's still a fossil fuel. AND as fracking begins to overtake conventional extraction methods and promise us centuries of cheap fossil gas and oil, we're only beginning to understand its impact on water and communities. Meanwhile, people right up to President Obama are now touting an "all of the above" strategy for "American Energy," including more drilling and mining.
AN OVER-REACH TO SWITCH FROM GASOLINE TO NATURAL GAS? As part of its media campaign to position itself, as what Brune describes as a "kinder, gentler" energy source," the industry suggests it makes replacing gasoline with natural gas for vehicles is a winner. Most analysts initially said gas (on a "well-to-wheels" basis) was 30-40% lower in greenhouse gases than gasoline. But when some stepped back and looked at the entire fuel extraction and distribution system, they realized that byproduct methane emissions can make gas as bad as gasoline. We've talked about all this in the past http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/1108.html .
NATURAL GAS VEHICLE CONVERSIONS SHOULD BE A NON-STARTER: When T. Boone Pickens poured $50 million into promoting the NatGas Act http://www.ngvc.org/ that Congress may still enact, he included converting millions of vehicles, spending tens of thousands per vehicle. In a speech in Las Vegas on January 26, Obama suggested high spending to "upgrade" corporate fleets to natural gas, despite little environmental benefit http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/01/26/remarks-president-american-made-energy .
VOLUME CONVERSIONS TO ELECTRICITY ARE THE "ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM." We can't just celebrate the tens of thousands of plug-in cars coming to market, and hope we get to a million by 2015. Remember why we need these cars -- in addition to their being fun to drive, quiet and cost much lower per mile? Wouldn't it be great within a decade to have more than a token impact on fossil fuel use and greenhouse gases from transportation? The only way that will happen is if we get tens and then hundreds of millions of plug-in cars on the road. And the only way to do that quickly enough is to convert many of our 250 million existing vehicles. That's why CalCars has promoted "The Big Fix" http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions as the logical next step after the widespread introduction of plug-in vehicles. (So far, we've gotten little uptake.)
MEANWHILE, THE AUTO INDUSTRY IS FALLING DOWN ON MARKETING PLUG-INS.
Carmakers have built great cars -- but we can't rely on them to sell them! The latest evidence is the Chevrolet Volt's Super Bowl ads http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVQtoeTiIyM that trumpet uncertainty and anxiety about aliens instead of promoting the Volt's pleasures. (It reminded many of GM's jaw-droopingly sinister ad for the EV1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3g7cgUm7o9k .) And while GM did well at the Congressional hearings, it was left to Bob Lutz to provide the best rebuttal http://www.forbes.com/sites/boblutz/2012/01/30/chevy-volt-and-the-wrong-headed-right/ to conservatives who condemn "Obamacars" and tax credits that were in fact developed by the Bush Administration.
WHAT WE NEED, ESPECIALLY FROM ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS:
- FULLY DISCLOSE all their corporate contributions, voluntarily. In the age of Citizens United and Occupy Wall Street, we must expect no less. As we suggest above, trumpet your support for those who come clean on fossil fuel support.
- HELP SELL PLUG-IN CARS: As many great cars come to market, organizations can educate the public and actively encourage their members to check them out in showrooms. Most of their audiences are in the marketing category called "LOHAS" -- tens of millions of individuals and families who embrace "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability." They will pay more up front for products that benefit them personally, have an impact on society and could prove to be smart purchases as oil prices rise. By themselves these millions can buy every plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle the industry can make. (That's not to say that EVs are only for greens. Many people -- including Lutz -- support them simply to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.)
- START THINKING AMBITIOUSLY ABOUT "THE BIG FIX." Few take seriously the idea of high-volume, safe, warrantied EV conversions. Just as we're retrofitting our buildings, it's an imperative. There are great technical solutions, and there can be viable business models. Green groups can be helping to build companies and making the case for government incentives to jump start a Pearl Harbor-style transition from fossil fuels.