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Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Sierra Club

What’s the Sierra Club’s position on the development and use of natural gas from shale? Depends on whom you ask…within the actual organization.

By now, of course, we’re all well aware of the Sierra Club’s newly staked-out position in opposition to natural gas, notwithstanding the fact that the Club used to support it. With its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, the Sierra Club now proclaims (without even a shred of irony) that natural gas is “environmentally damaging and harms public health.” Empirical evidence – and even studies commissioned by none other than the Sierra Club itself — shows the opposite is true (for more, see here, here, and here), but no one ever accused the Sierra Club of being constrained by novelties such as consistency, accuracy, or metaphysics.

The shift toward ideological opposition to an energy source they once pragmatically supported was in some ways predictable. The Club couldn’t sit on the sidelines as American oil and natural gas production soared to record highs due to the development of shale and other tight resources, and the subsequent rise in activism around the word “fracking” posed too great a fundraising opportunity for them to ignore.

But that rapid 180-degree turn on natural gas has also put the Sierra Club in an uncomfortable position. With the near-daily news stories explaining the air quality and climate benefits of natural gas, the Sierra Club’s opposition to natural gas undermines its stated goal of protecting the environment. In response, the Sierra Club has come up with a bold and fascinating strategy: Say whatever the heck they want, regardless of whether it contradicts their statements elsewhere.

Don’t believe us? Here are but a couple of examples from around the country.

Tennessee

The Sierra Club’s official position on natural gas (and, by extension, hydraulic fracturing) is this:

“If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.”

The obvious takeaway is that the Sierra Club believes current natural gas extraction is harming the environment, and thus we need additional study to determine if we can do it safely. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the Club simply declare, unequivocally, that natural gas drilling is inherently unsafe and must be banned?

(For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the fact that state and federal regulators have been nearly unanimous in saying natural gas development is safe.)

Enter the University of Tennessee, which announced recently that it would be studying hydraulic fracturing and its impacts on the environment. From the Knoxville News Sentinel:

“The University of Tennessee is undertaking a fracking research project, with plans to partner with an industry company to drill a well on land owned by the university across Morgan and Scott counties in the Cumberland Forest. The university will study how water, ecosystems, air quality are affected by the drilling, and what best practices should be used.”

The study would be managed by UT’s Institute of Agriculture, and would clearly yield important answers to the general public’s questions and concerns. As reported by The Tennessean:

“We feel like, based on the news that everyone has been receiving relative to natural gas use and natural gas extraction, that there are a lot of unanswered questions out there,” said Bill Brown, dean of UT AgResearch.

“We feel like the University of Tennessee is in a position to be able to provide answers.”

So a prestigious university is ready to address the question head-on about whether natural gas development – particularly hydraulic fracturing – can be done safely in Tennessee. Let’s see where the Sierra Club stands on studying the process:

The Sierra Club also opposes the proposal.

“UT was given this property to advance our knowledge of techniques to heal the land, not to exploit it for mineral resources utilizing a process that is known to threaten water quality,” the Sierra Club’s Scott Banbury said in a prepared statement.

Amazing – though perhaps not unsurprising: The Sierra Club wants assurances that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, but opposes efforts to actually study and develop the processes that can provide those assurances. For those keeping score at home: that’s not a principled stand for the environment. It’s a cynical attempt to manufacture a particular outcome (no drilling) without having to be forced into arguing that that’s actually what you’re trying to do. It’s craven.

Wisconsin

One of the key arguments the Sierra Club makes against shale is that natural gas is a threat to public health, due primarily to air emissions. As stated on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas webpage:

“Natural gas production is environmentally damaging and harms public health.”

Apparently, the Sierra Club hopes the public is too distracted by stuff like this (we admit, it’s cute) to recognize that natural gas actually provides significant health benefits (see this report by The Breakthrough Institute for more details). The Club also believes the public is too stupid to follow what representatives from the Sierra Club actually tell the press about natural gas. Like this story from Wisconsin:

The state reached an agreement with the Sierra Club that requires it to evaluate all of its heating and cooling plants at UW campuses, correctional and health facilities for compliance with clean-air standards, said Jennifer Feyerherm, of the club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Already, Feyerherm said, the Charter plant and the Capitol Heating Plant in Downtown Madison converted from coal to natural gas as a result of the agreement.

The boiler replacements at Waupun and Winnebago “should’ve been done years ago,” she said.

The Building Commission approved $15.6 million to replace three, 64-year-old coal-burning boilers at the Waupun Central Generating Plant, which provides steam to the Waupun, Dodge, and John C. Burke correctional institutions and a private creamery.

The commission also approved $8.6 million for the plant at the Winnebago mental health center north of Oshkosh. The project will replace three coal-fired boilers, two of them 63 years old and the other 49 years old.

Because of the upgrades, Feyerherm said, “The emissions and human health impacts should be greatly reduced.” (emphasis added)

Now let’s juxtapose the above story, in which the Sierra Club supports a shift to natural gas, with this story from National Journal last summer:

As we push to retire coal plants, we’re going to work to make sure we’re not simultaneously switching to natural-gas infrastructure,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told National Journal in an interview on Wednesday. “And we’re going to be preventing new gas plants from being built wherever we can.”

To recap: The Sierra Club says natural gas “harms public health,” but also that emissions and negative health impacts will be “greatly reduced” from using natural gas. And even as they publicly support a switch to natural gas, they want everyone to know that they will NOT be supporting a switch to more natural gas.

To be fair, the Sierra Club probably wouldn’t have been able to score a media hit on this news in Wisconsin had it not blatantly contradicted itself on natural gas. And after all, that’s really what’s important here, right?

Conclusion

For other organizations, issuing contradictory statements about the safety and health benefits of natural gas would result in self-reflection and a major course correction to facilitate consistency. For the Sierra Club, it’s just another day at the office.

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