Sierra Club Secretly Took $26 million from Natural Gas Industry for Campaign Against Coal-Fired Power Plants

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Posted Feb. 8, 2012

Interview with Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


A blogger for Time magazine revealed on Feb. 2 that from 2007 to 2010, the Sierra Club, under former Executive Director Carl Pope, had accepted $26 million in donations from individuals and subsidiaries linked with Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas drilling companies in the U.S. heavily involved in the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The funds were donated for the express purpose of funding the environmental group’s Beyond Coal campaign. The Sierra campaign has succeeded in stopping the construction of 160 proposed coal-fired power plants and is now targeting existing coal-fired plants for closure.

For years, coal has been considered the world's dirtiest fossil fuel, and natural gas was touted as a cleaner alternative to produce electricity and power transportation. However, more recent scientific studies have exposed the dirty side of natural gas, including serious pollution problems associated with fracking, of gas wells drilled in many states.

When Michael Brune was hired in March 2010 to succeed Pope as the Sierra Club’s executive director, he ended the payments from the natural gas industry. Brune, formerly with the more militant Rainforest Action Network, declared that the secrecy surrounding Chesapeake’s millions of dollars in contributions to Sierra had jeopardized the group’s integrity and relationship with supporters. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Bruce Hamilton, who's been with the Sierra Club since the 1970s and is now the group’s deputy executive director. Hamilton discusses what the natural gas industry money was used for, the evolving view about natural gas, and the legacy of Carl Pope, who became the Sierra Club’s chairman of the board when Brune was hired, but has since left the organization.

BRUCE HAMILTON: The gifts were restricted to the Beyond Coal Campaign, so in that sense there are strings – you can't go and spend it on wilderness protection. So they weren't unrestricted gifts to the Sierra Club to spend on whatever we wanted. But the Beyond Coal Campaign proposal that they funded basically said this is money to stop the expansion of coal-fired power and ultimately reduce our dependence on it and promote renewable energy, so it has to be spent on that, and it was spent on that. But there was nothing in the gift agreement that even mentioned natural gas.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Even though Carl Pope kept it very quiet, do you think the Sierra Club could have justified accepting natural gas money to attack coal because until recently most environmental groups, including yours, thought of natural gas as a bridge fuel from coal and oil to renewable energy?

BRUCE HAMILTON: So you know, as a result, whenever you could switch from a gasoline-powered car to a natural gas car or a diesel bus to a natural gas bus or a power plant shifting over from coal to natural gas, that was generally seen as an environmental plus from a clean air standpoint, because if you look at the burn point, natural gas is in fact cleaner than coal, but if you look at the entire life cycle, now we know, it's much dirtier [than we thought]. So Michael Brune, when he took over the reins in March 2010, in his first call with the staff as a whole, he said, "I have a number of priorities and one of them is to make sure we hold natural gas accountable and to make sure that it is not risking communities and causing major environmental degradation."

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it common practice that the organization could accept $26 million from any source and the executive director would be the only one to know about it?

BRUCE HAMILTON: It's very uncommon for this amount of money to ever come into the Sierra Club (laughs.) What can I say? We don't get very, very large gifts. When the (NYC Mayor Michael) Bloomberg gift came in ($50 million), obviously, it was widely known throughout the Sierra Club. But this particular case, I was not privy to it, and a couple of board members had a limited knowledge – they didn't know the extent of the gifts or the identities of the donors, and most of the board of directors didn't know at all. And it turns out that's a major hole in our corporate gift acceptance policy and our anonymous donor policy and our notify the board policy, so the other thing Michael Brune did once he arrived was to work with the board of directors to change all those policies, so that now there is far greater transparency, and any anonymous donation coming in needs to be shared with the board, with the size and the strings and everything else.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Bruce Hamilton, what's your opinion about the club taking this money from a major fossil fuel producer?

BRUCE HAMILTON: I believe it was a mistake and it needs to be corrected, and I was very proud of the fact that Mike (Brune) ultimately made the decision and the board unanimously supported him to go forward and not accept any more gas money and leave $30 million on the table. That was the subsequent gift that was pledged, but he and the board decided to walk away from. It's difficult just because it was such a large portion of the Sierra Club's financial backing and it was funding a very large proportion of our Beyond Coal Campaign, which was doing very important work to save the climate of the earth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Carl Pope stepped down from any staff role in the club last month. Was that related to this whole issue?

BRUCE HAMILTON: I know there were some concerns about Carl, but whether or not that led to this transition or other things led to this transition, that's something that was between the board and Carl, and all I know is the press releases that went out applauding Carl for his service and his career.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now that he's gone, how would you evaluate his leadership of the Sierra Club for almost 20 years, because you worked under him for about 15?

BRUCE HAMILTON: He's a brilliant man who has done great things for the Sierra Club and the environmental movement, and he's really transformed the Sierra Club in a number of ways into a broader organization that is more committed to working in communities, to grassroots empowerment, to promoting environmental justice, to having outreach and partnership with labor and communities of color, and hunters and anglers and others. He kind of transformed it from being a Sierra CLUB, where we talked primarily to ourselves and organized ourselves, into something that was more a leader of the movement, and I have great admiration for that, but in building the "big tent" where he was trying to reach out to all these different constituencies, he also was struggling with trying to figure out how to have adequate resources to fight bigger and bigger battles and challenges, like climate change. And at the same time, there were shrinking resources available to the Sierra Club from membership dollars.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you think this whole episode will sour members and prospective members and cause an even greater fall-off in contributions?

BRUCE HAMILTON: I am certain that a number of individuals will decide they either don't want to join the Sierra Club or they want to resign their Sierra Club membership; we've already seen a couple of emails to that effect. Now, whether it's a significant order of magnitude, I don't know.

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