Alliance between natural gas industry, environmental groups fractures

Ralph Wilson/AP - Workers operate at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site April 23, 2010, near Burlington, Pa.

Just four years ago, shale gas king Aubrey K. McClendon told shareholders of Chesapeake Energy that “finally, we made some new friends this year.”

The chief executive sketched a vision of working hand in hand with “leading environmental organizations” on issues “where our interests might be aligned.” He said, “We believe this collaboration is unique in the industry and will benefit both Chesapeake and these environmental organizations for years to come.”

New friendships grew old, then cold. Environmental groups that once took money from McClendon — or considered doing so — to make a common cause against coal power, have stepped back as they weigh the environmental perils of extracting natural gas from shale, a business in which McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy is a leader.

The Sierra Club took $26.1 million in contributions from McClendon and Chesapeake-affiliated companies between 2007 and 2010, a fact that its executive director, Michael Brune, first disclosed to Time magazine earlier this month. Last year, Brune walked away from Chesapeake and an offer of an additional $30 million in donations.

“Identifying a common area of interest is very different from having our financial health dependent on a particular industry, or particular company,” he said in an interview.

The American Lung Association also has accepted an undisclosed amount from the company since 2009 for its “Fighting for Air” branding campaign. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), whose leaders McClendon wooed and who toured field operations, ultimately declined the funding he offered.

Brune decided that the donations represented a political liability when he took the Sierra Club’s helm in 2010. He said he realized that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was “going to be controversial, and I thought the most important thing was to strengthen our natural gas campaign.” He also faced complaints from local Sierra Club chapters in New York state and Pennsylvania.

It made sense that environmentalists viewed the natural gas industry as an ally when they were trying to forge a climate deal on Capitol Hill in 2009 and 2010, said Deborah Gordon, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s energy and climate program.

“When cap-and-trade was going through, they needed an alternative. . . . They saw it as the savior, and it’s anti-coal,” Gordon said. But now, she said, concerns about the chemicals used to tap shale gas have become more pressing as hydraulic fracturing activity has increased nationwide. “It’s just exploded,” she said.

Although McClendon may be the gas industry’s most generous donor to environmental causes, he is not the only one. Natural gas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens gave $453,250 to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2008 and 2009 through his nonprofit groups, to support its National Clean Energy Project events. At the time, Pickens was pressing lawmakers to adopt a bill to subsidize construction of natural gas filling stations. The legislation would have directly helped a company Pickens co-founded called Clean Energy Fuels, which describes itself as “the leading provider of natural gas for transportation.”

Several companies with natural gas interests, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, have donated to the D.C.-based Center for Clean Air Policy as part of its efforts to sponsor an ongoing dialogue about domestic climate policy. Exxon and Chevron have given $35,000 each for an annual membership in the dialogue, while smaller industry associations have donated less.

Chesapeake Energy spokesman Jim Gipson said that “over the years, Chesapeake has been proud to support a number of organizations that share our interest in clean air and agree[s] that America’s abundant supplies of clean natural gas represent the most affordable, available and scalable fuel to power a more prosperous and environmentally responsible future for our country.” He would not comment on the recent rift.

Some of the groups that have taken money from natural gas interests emphasized that they have continued to question aspects of the industry even as they’ve accepted contributions. CAP spokeswoman Andrea Purse noted that while the group did endorse the Nat Gas Act, modeled on Pickens’s call for a transition to natural-gas-powered vehicles, it had touted natural gas as a transition fuel in 2007. Furthermore, CAP senior fellow Joe Romm wrote several blog posts critical of Pickens.

Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser said that Pickens’s activities aren’t limited to one party or political wing. “He’s lent his voice to a number of organizations interested in broad public policies on OPEC oil dependence, national security and clean-air concerns,” Rosser said. “These include business, political and environmental entities on both sides of the political spectrum.”

American Lung Association spokeswoman Carrie Martin said of Chesapeake, “We appreciate their support over several years,” adding that the group backs “increased use of natural gas as a transitional fuel for the production of electricity, as a cleaner alternative to biomass, coal and other fossil fuels.” She noted that the association recently urged the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt stronger limits on harmful emissions from gas wells, processing plants, pipelines and storage units.

At least one group that seriously considered McClendon’s offer, the NRDC, decided in the end that his support would constitute a conflict of interest. Half a dozen senior NRDC leaders and energy staffers — including John Adams, its founding director — traveled to Chesapeake’s Oklahoma headquarters in early 2008 to have what NRDC spokeswoman Jenny Powers described as “a serious and frank conversation about fracking” and to discuss a contribution to its “Move America Beyond Coal” campaign.

In a letter to the NRDC’s board of trustees earlier this month, President Frances Beinecke wrote that the group does not accept corporate donations and “decided that it would be unwise to accept his personal contribution.”

Groups such as the Center for Clean Air Policy have specifically invited oil and gas companies to contribute to their efforts to devise a compromise on climate change. The group’s president, Ned Helme, said the firms are “part of a much larger group” that includes representatives from government agencies and nonprofits.

“All the players are at the table,” Helme said. “You’re really after how everyone’s second choices might line up.”

The money that natural gas interests have given environmental and public-health groups may help account for why it has gained popularity among American voters, while the coal industry’s public relations campaign has not shifted public attitudes. According to the Schott Solar Barometer Survey, which asked voters what forms of energy they would support if they were in charge of U.S. energy policy, natural gas jumped from 12 to 21 percent between 2009 and 2011 and coal rose from 2 to 3 percent. Natural gas surpassed wind in the survey and is second only to solar.

But with natural gas money off the table, several environmental groups are tapping other donors to back their efforts on shutting down coal-fired power plants in the United States. Last July, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) gave the Sierra Club a personal $50 million contribution to support its “Beyond Coal” campaign for four years.

A solar company, SunRun, gave money to the Sierra Club to help defeat a statewide proposition that would have rolled back targets under the California renewable portfolio standards that favor wind and solar.

Earlier this month, former vice president Al Gore brought current and potential donors on an eight-day trip to Antarctica. They traveled on a small Lindblad cruise boat with climate experts such as James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Gore hopes to raise money for his group, the Climate Reality Project, which will launch a new campaign targeting the coal industry.

“Despite what the coal industry has spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars telling people, coal is neither clean nor cheap nor the right fuel for the future,” Maggie Fox, the group’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “This spring, the Climate Reality Project will be adding our voice to the growing chorus speaking the truth about the exorbitant price we pay for our addiction to coal.”

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

 
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