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.
(Shortly after it goes out on email, this posting will also be
viewable at http://www.calcars.org/news-archive.html
-- there you can
add CalCars-News to your RSS feed.)
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
). I had first come to Sierra
through its spectacular wilderness calendars
. Then I learned about its roots in
John Muir's advocacy for national parks
. 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
.) 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
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
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
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
(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:
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. Manwhile, 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
NATURAL GAS VEHICLE CONVERSIONS SHOULD BE A NON-STARTER: When T.
Boone Pickens poured $50 million into promoting the NatGas Act
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
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"
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
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
.) And while GM did well
at the Congressional hearings, it was left to Bob Lutz to provide the
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
* 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.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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