Alliance Between Natural Gas Industry, Environmental Groups
19 February 2012
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
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
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
“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
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
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.