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Breaking Up with the Sierra Club, Confronting PEC: Gas Drillers’ Generosity Comes at High Cost

March 27, 2012

Sandra Steingraber has broken up with the Sierra Club. Her open letter to national Sierra Club, published in Orion Magazine, expresses the sense of betrayal which has been reverberating throughout shale country since the news emerged that Sierra Club took $25 million from the shale gas drilling industry, mostly from Chesapeake Energy. She begins by quoting John Muir, “We must risk our lives to save them,” expressing a level of commitment clearly at odds with taking funds from major polluters who keep toxic secrets.

Sierra Club is not alone in accepting gas drillers’ self-serving donations. Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) not only took money from the gas industry — but unlike Sierra Club, PEC continues to take money from gas drillers. PEC admitted this publicly at a forum last month at a wetlands refuge outside Philadelphia, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. PEC, among other things, takes responsibility for inserting the medical gag order into Pennsylvania’s HB1950 — the “impact fee bill,” now PA law as Act 13, aka “The Mad Rush to Frack Act.” PEC helpfully inserted the clause that requires doctors to keep secret from their patients, colleagues, and the general public any proprietary ingredients in fracking fluid which may have harmed their patients — yes, that gag order. PEC, which has generally been a booster for the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, is staunchly opposed to a moratorium, not even favoring hitting the “pause” button long enough for cumulative impact studies or a Health Impact Assessment to be done. PEC claims that receiving funds from gas drillers does not influence their policy analysis regarding gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Back to Sierra Club and the millions they received from Chesapeake Energy. Sandra Steingraber demands reparations and action, after the fact of the damage done by national Sierra’s years of high-profile pro-shale-gas advocacy. Here is Steingraber’s call for courage:

No right way is easy. . . .We must risk our lives to save them.
—John Muir, Sierra Club’s founder

Dear Sierra Club,

I’m through with you.

For years we had a great relationship based on mutual admiration. You gave a glowing review of my first book, Living Downstream—a review that appeared in the pages of Sierra magazine and hailed me as “the new Rachel Carson.” Since 1999 that phrase has linked us together in all the press materials that my publicist sends out. Your name appears with mine on the flaps of my book jackets, in the biography that introduces me at the speaker’s podium, and in the press release that announced, last fall, that I was one of the lucky recipients of a $100,000 Heinz Award for my research and writing on the environment.

I was proud to be affiliated with you. I hoped to live up to the moniker you bestowed upon me.

But more than a month has past since your executive director, Michael Brune, admitted in Time magazine that the Sierra Club had, between 2007 and 2010, clandestinely accepted $25 million from the fracking industry, with most of the donations coming from Chesapeake Energy. Corporate Crime Reporter was hot on the trail of the story when it broke in Time.

From the start, Brune’s declaration seemed less an acknowledgement of wrongdoing than an attempt to minister to a looming public relations problem. Would someone truly interested in atonement seek credit for choosing not to take additional millions of gas industry dollars (“Why the Sierra Club Turned Down $26 Million in Contributions from Natural Gas Interests”)?

Here, on top of the Marcellus Shale, along the border between Pennsylvania and New York—where we are surrounded by land leased to the gas industry; where we live in fear that our water will be ruined, our mortgages called in, our teenage children killed in fiery wrecks with 18-wheelers hauling toxic fracking waste on our rural, icy back roads; where we cash out our vacation days to board predawn buses to rallies and public hearings; where we fundraise, donate, testify, phone bank, lobby, submit public comments, sign up for trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience; where our children ask if we will be arrested, if we will have to move, if we will die, and what will happen to the bats, the honeybees, the black bears, the grapevines, the apple orchards, the cows’ milk; where we have learned all about casing failures, blow-outs, gas flares, clear-cuts, legal exemptions, the benzene content of production fluid, the radioactive content of drill cuttings; where people suddenly start sobbing in church and no one needs to ask why—here in the crosshairs of Chesapeake Energy, Michael Brune’s announcement was met with a kind of stunned confusion.

The Sierra Club had taken money, gobs of it, from an industry that we in the grassroots have been in the fight of our lives to oppose. The largest, most venerable environmental organization in the United States secretly aligned with the very company that seeks to occupy our land, turn it inside out, blow it apart, fill it with poison. All for the goal of extracting a powerful heat-trapping gas, methane, that plays a significant role in climate change.

Climate change: identified by The Lancet as the number-one global health problem of the 21st century. Children, according to the World Health Organization, are among its primary victims.

And that’s not all. Please read her March 23, 2012 statement in its entirety here, in Orion Magazine.

As David Braun of United for Action puts it, “there are a hundred reasons not to frack.” A is for arsenic, b is for barium and benzene, c is for climate, d is for democracy besieged, e is for evictions of 32 families… and the list goes on.

Here in Pennsylvania, our state Sierra Club chapter has taken a stand favoring a statewide moratorium and does put out great fact sheets like this one, “Fracking Mythbusters Fact Sheet,” debunking the myths about Act 13, PA’s “Mad Rush to Frack Act.” But the tragic and angering reality is that if national Sierra Club had paid attention to the facts about fracking that hundreds of activists and scientists were spending thousands of hours attempting to get across to the brick wall of their leadership throughout 2008 and 2009 and 2010, it’s quite likely that Pennsylvania’s devastating Act 13 would not have become law. The claim that “environmentalists were split” (thanks, PEC) helped enable spineless PA legislators to sell our state down the river with Act 13, pre-empting municipalities from protecting their residents, gagging doctors, allowing Marcellus well pads 300 feet from anybody’s front door and allowing wells to be fracked within 300 feet of streams and rivers. That’s insane.

So, well said, Sandra Steingraber. This is too important an issue to paper over the high cost of gas drillers’ generosity — past and present — to well-funded groups that consider themselves to be environmental leaders. Even as we call our elected officials to account and boot a lot of them out, so we need to call our environmental groups to account as well. Public health is at stake here, along with climate. It’s time for reparations. And I can tell you about a dozen families in Butler County, as well as families in Bradford and Susquehanna and Tioga and Bedford and Washington and Jefferson and other counties, that need some of those reparations right now. Companion animals and farm animals that have died cannot be brought back and human illnesses and losses can’t be reversed, but prevention begins here and now.

This fracking horse is not out of the barn. Only the horse’s head is nosing out of the barn (5,000 Marcellus wells in the ground, of 100,000 – 150,000 total projected for PA), and that’s what a halter is for!

  1. Zandra Price permalink
    March 27, 2012 6:01 pm

    Thanks for sending this. There must be a lot of folks in the Sierra Club who think that natural gas is the good bridge fuel. The one time I heard Kathryn Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition speak (persuasively) about the blessings of natural gas and fracking it was at a Sierra Club event. The idea was to present both sides of the issue. The magazine Sierra is a great read but articles on fracking are conspicuously absent.

  2. David Meiser permalink
    April 2, 2012 11:17 am

    Here is the article which came out almost at the same time as Sandra’s article

    As well as this article

    Which ha the following question answered by Mr Brune directly

    One elephant in the room is the recent concession that, yes, the Sierra Club did accept millions of dollars in donations from the natural gas industry. The Natural Gas Reform Campaign has been working on these issues for more than a year, and that decision was made under your predecessor’s watch. But cynics can’t help but point out that the anti-gas volume has been cranked up lately. What has been most difficult in regard to that announcement and subsequent fallout?

    The toughest thing has just been to witness how people have been very disappointed and upset by what the Sierra Club did. I went through that same process of finding out about these contributions, extricating ourselves from that relationship, managing the organization’s finances and trying to lead through this a couple years ago. So when this became public, the biggest challenge has been to talk our members and volunteer leaders and activists through this whole process. It has taken a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails and letters and in-person meetings for people to process all this information.

    I understand people were angry because I was, too. I understand they were disappointed by what was done, and I felt the same way. I think what we’re working toward is making sure that we have an internal governance so that something like this never happens again. We are redoubling our efforts to support communities that are facing fracking all across the country and through the campaign, which has been growing for the last few years and continues to grow.

    What we’re trying to do, which is frankly very difficult to do, is simultaneously support all of the communities who are very concerned about a coal plant in their back yard, or mountaintop removal mining site down the road, as well as support the communities who are very concerned about fracking and what it means for their water, air and community. And to make sure that any Sierra Club members knows they can count on the Sierra Club for support when they want to fight pollution, regardless of the source.

    Basically, what we’re trying to do is unify all activists against fossil fuels and to do it in a way that challenges each of us fighting dirty energy on one hand and the other hand pushing strongly for clean energy. We can’t just be about all the things we oppose. We have to be very creative and productive in creating the clean energy economy that we’ve been demanding for a long time.

  3. Reality permalink
    October 25, 2012 4:59 pm

    I appreciate that Ms. Bloom and Mr. Meiser want to believe that Sierra is no longer taking secret natural gas money but there is no way for them to prove Sierra isn’t. The gifts were accepted and processed by essentially the same Board of Directors that sits there today. Because of Citizens United the Club can now launder money through their 501c4 status and give unlimited gifts to whomever they want. They have strong union ties that they have preserved from the Carl Pope era. And if they find a campaign or candidate they support or oppose, they can get unlimited money processed anonymously and just exorcise their demons upon local politics from the privacy of a ivory tower or wire transfer. They are doing this in this 2012 election in Seattle and NYC. Citizens United changed everything. Don’t think Republicans have a monopoly on targeting Dems. A Union/Sierra PAC can simply pick a candidate and make him/her win. It’s not about saving trees anymore. It’s about developing urban and waterfront land in cities. It’s about mass transit projects. It’s about getting CNG trucks purchased by Port authorities. It’s about mowing over a grassroots candidate and cherry picking an industry spokesperson. Why else is Barclay’s Bank and builders showing up at NYC Sierra mtgs and sitting on its Board? Power, and the money.

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