A Free-Market Energy Blog

Sierra Club: Thy Name is Hypocrisy (natural gas for and against)

By Steve Everley -- March 18, 2013

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 Gascampaign, the Sierra Club now proclaims (without even a shred of irony) that natural gas is “environmentally damaging and harms public health.” Yet empirical evidence–even studies commissioned by none other than the Sierra Club itself–shows the opposite is true (also 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. The activist uprising around “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.


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.


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.” (bold 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?


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. And it’s all about the green — and we’re not talking about the environment, either.


  1. Jon Boone  

    Thanks for this forthright report. The states are following the national organization’s directives, which tightly control the Club’s energy policy initiatives. I wrote about this over three years ago in a paper that was also posted on MR. The present post should bring readers up to date. For those who hadn’t read my article, here’s a few paragraphs from it that provide context and a lead in to what Mr. Everly has written. Note that The Sierra Club’s contradictions over the years nicely complement its leader’s sanctimony:

    “Such high ground as applied to energy production, however, has situated the Club atop the steepest slopes. But none steeper than its militant commitment to the perceived threat of Climate Change. Today, it not only embraces the proposition that a surfeit of carbon dioxide, mostly from human activity, is precipitously and dangerously warming the earth’s climate. It also helped stoke the idea. The organization’s leadership maintains that Global Warming is the greatest environmental crisis facing the earth, and demands an immediate and forceful political response to reduce CO2 emissions by eliminating fossil fuel use. Since coal-fired units produce about half of the nation’s electricity and about 40% of all CO2 emitted, while the coal industry itself practices such environmentally damaging extraction techniques as mountaintop removal, the Sierra Club now seeks to shut the entire industry down.

    “In the 1970s, however, as part of the call for energy independence in response to the Arab oil embargo, the organization worked hand-in-glove with President Jimmy Carter to replace oil generation with coal, in the process ironically increasing coal generation. In the same era, the Sierra Club began to disown nuclear power generation, which also doesn’t burn carbon, in the wake of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Hollywood films, although for a large part of its history, it was a staunch supporter of nuclear, since it was the only “clean” energy source that could replace hydro.

    “Consequently, the organization today actively opposes the firm capacity responsible for providing 78% of the nation’s electricity, and it is equivocal about the use of natural gas, which supplies virtually all of the rest. Even though natural gas burns about 40% cleaner than coal, it still is a fossil fuel, which will eventually be depleted. [Evidently, The Sierra Club is no longer equivocal about natural gas and now opposes all effective forms of capacity generation at scale.]

    “So how to make electricity in the Sierra Club’s world of the future? The answer: RENEWABLES! Lots of wind and solar—but not impounded hydro. And a move away from central grid dependency by making wind especially part of a distributed generation micro-grid system located near demand centers. All this would be supported by the so-called smart grid, requiring substantial new transmission lines in an effort to improve efficiency and reliability, thereby saving fossil fuel and avoiding carbon emissions while conserving demand by moving it to off-peak hours. The image, but hardly the reality, is one of downsizing and intimacy, and a transition away from centralized control.”

    Tattered as it has become with sloganeering, sophistry,
    sentimentalism, and unscience, The Sierra Club and virtually all other mainline environmental groups, particularly Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the American Bird Conservancy represent self reference feeding on itself in defense of solecistic ideology, sacrificing their founding principles while forgetting the legacy of their founders- succumbing to an ends-justify-the-means doctrine of climate alarmism worthy of the prophets of old. And a little lucre from the renewables crowd….


  2. Jim Wiegand  

    In this day and age John Muir would probably be suing the Sierra Club for various reasons, but most of all for exploiting his name. John Muir spent a great deal of time out in the wilderness and had a great understanding for the natural world. He shared his knowledge with the ignorant and made great contributions in the effort to protect our natural heritage. He would also have a great deal to say about wind industry.

    I am very aware of how this organization feels about wind power. I have read their propaganda and heard their twisted spin on this devastating industry. They even had the nerve to celebrate the recent tax credits given to the industry claiming that the passage of the PTC is a huge victory for our economy and our environment. Has anyone from this club ever even been to Altamont Pass or the Tehachapi region? There is nothing but industrial ruination to the “natural heritage” not to mention the endless slaughter of bird and bat species from spinning turbine blades. This is not a victory of any kind for the economy or our environment. Many species are on the decline because of these turbines and wind power will result in the extinction of many species, and this club wants to celebrate.

    It is a disgrace. I see no meaningful contributions from this organization, just the selling of a lost dream by people with little understanding.

    A few weeks back I watched one of their spokesmen on CNN. The whole time I was wishing I could grab the guy by the ear, drag him to the curb and give him an extra boot so I could help him on his way. John Muir would celebrate that.


  3. JohnInMA  

    The Sierra Club’s shift to principally be an arm of the climate catastrophe movement would be more benign were it not for the fact that federal agencies, especially the EPA, are now populated at the highest levels by like-minded partisans. Couple that with increasing budgets and the stimulus honeypot, it’s easy to see that “non-profits” succumb to following the money. There is so much floating around directly and indirectly (private donors looking to leverage their investment in Sierra to push an agenda to benefit their other investments, chasing the public money). It doesn’t make it right. (clarity for those who might take my words the wrong way)

    The only consolation, if it exists, is the fact that their end result proposal is so costly, so disruptive, and overall so outrageous that it is bound to discredit them in the eyes of all but the most ardent climate catastrophists. Even today the residents of San Francisco are resisting the initiative to create a 100% renewable energy zone for a portion of the city for COST reasons. It was initially approved for all the ‘feel good’ reasons, then the reality set in about cost and lack of trust in the promises and the providers. Even an electrical union is fighting it. From the effort’s spokesperson: ” Green energy does come at a premium cost…”. And, “It’s a premium product, so customers will have to pay a little more.” The truth is they will pay anywhere from 50% to 100% more.

    Regardless of the details, it just goes to prove that even in SFO, the real impact of Sierra’s position is unacceptable when the bill comes due. It cannot survive the test of implementation. So, it is just fantasy for know.


  4. Ray  

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds


  5. Stefan v  

    One of these days the warmicoolist changeists are going to come clean and admit it….”Ok, ok, we were lying. But since we now have all the wealth and all the guns…whaddayagunnadoaboudit? At this stage, what difference does it make?”. Boy have they got a nasty surprise coming…there is Someone Who saw the whole thing, and there’s no appeal or stonewalling.


  6. Environmentalists Turn Against Anything New Shows Court Case | The Daily Caller  

    […] $25 million in donations from the gas industry between 2007 and 2010. In 2012, The Sierra Club completely changed its position when natural gas suddenly became a viable energy source due to fracking. The organization now […]


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