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The Rot in Gang Green

Since its inception, the environmental movement has continued to change and, some would say, mature. But with those changes and maturity has come a bane common to groups that grow beyond their original mission. In the case of Gang Green, the term applied to the large environmental advocacy groups in the U.S., their growth—into large, showy and expensive operations—has come with a price, and that price, as Time magazine revealed in an exposé on their Ecocentric blog, is finding the money to keep those huge organizations running. Specifically, the scandal of the week is the Sierra Club taking $25 million from natural gas corporations between 2007 and 2010 and not telling its members or anyone else about it.

Most people who support environmental organizations expect them to be beyond reproach when it comes to telling the truth to their members and the public. The reason is both simple and compelling: In most of the policy battles over the environment, it’s usually the mega-corporations who are on the “dirty” side of the issue and mainly concerned with profit margins, while the environmentalists are supposed to be fighting not for themselves or for money, but for the good of the environment.

Time’s exclusive has blown the lid off that assumption for the Sierra Club and intimates that other members of Gang Green may have equally astonishing corporate relationships. The problem is not with the leaders of the groups rubbing elbows with their generous corporate sponsors, but the fact that at the grassroots level, where the impacts from the hydraulic fracturing process known as “fracking” are accumulating, those who support Gang Green expect them to fight for the environment, not make excuses for industry donors. A Wall Street Journal article from December 2009 exemplifies what many grassroots supporters probably have in mind: “The pressure from local environmentalists appears to be having an impact. The Natural Resources Defense Council is now pushing for stricter regulation of drilling, the Environmental Defense Fund is working with companies to encourage them to adopt stronger environmental safeguards and the Sierra Club has formed a task force to draft a policy on hydraulic fracturing.”

In 2009, the Sierra Club was already taking millions from some of the nation’s largest natural gas producers, who were, of course, fracking deep underground to release hitherto unobtainable deposits of gas locked in shale formations. While their members voiced expectations that the Sierra Club would fight fracking tooth and nail because of the damage it can cause to precious groundwater supplies, the club’s executive director, Carl Pope, was touring the nation with Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the largest of the natural gas industry donors. The twisted logic behind Pope’s thinking was that natural gas would be a “bridge fuel” to transition the nation away from coal. They even called it the “Beyond Coal” campaign.

Unfortunately, this political ploy is not unique to the Sierra Club. It’s more common every day to find big environmental groups moderating environmental advocacy in favor of access to politicians, and trading hard fighting for hard funding. Add to that a concerted effort by ever more moderate foundations to fund groups that “collaborate” with environmental polluters in order to come up with what they dub “pragmatic solutions” to our growing environmental challenges.

In Montana, we can see the effects as groups such as the Montana Wilderness Association take hundreds of thousands from the Pew Charitable Trusts to suddenly sing “Kumbaya” with timber mill owners, aka “timber partners,” in Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which sets a new and horrible precedent for mandating timber harvest levels in national forests. That the bill sacrifices Wilderness Study Areas already protected in law by Montana’s late Senator Lee Metcalf only adds insult to injury—but it probably keeps that foundation funding flowing freely for MWA.

The Sierra Club actually had another $30 million in natural gas donations lined up when the news about the initial $25 million began to leak. Caught in what they knew would be a firestorm, they replaced Pope with Michael Brune in 2010. To his credit, only months after being hired, Brune advised the board to reject any future contributions from natural gas producers and continues to hold that position today. But that doesn’t mean the Sierra Club has severed all of its dubious corporate-donor ties. It formed a much-criticized partnership with Clorox Corporation, allowing the use of their emblem on the company’s “green” product line. They also recently have partnered with Hartford Insurance, which, like Clorox, gets to use the club’s logo in their ads.

The ties between Gang Green and big corporations seems to be growing, not diminishing. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, for instance, teams Big Green groups like the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council with the likes of Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, Shell, the notorious mining firm Rio Tinto and many other mega-corporations. Perhaps the exposé on the Sierra Club will lead to a cleanup, but for now, the gangrene in Gang Green is Big Green corporate donations.

George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent, where this column originally ran. He lives in Helena, Montana. He can be reached at: opinion@missoulanews.com.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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