The Gas Drilling Task Force Co-Chairs are:
- Kate Bartholomew
- Gusti Bogok
- Chris Burger
FRACKING: National Catching Up to the Grassroots?
(originally published in Spring 2012 Sierra Atlantic)
IN NEW YORK
Beginning in 2008, the Atlantic Chapter began hearing from its grassroots activists about hydrofracking. We formed a Gas Drilling Task Force to address the matter and it quickly became our most active campaign. Thus began a frantic effort to get on top of what was to become a national environmental issue and the most important one confronting our state.
The gas industry had a huge head start in New York, quietly signing leases with unsuspecting landowners in the Southern Tier while lobbying key state legislators and DEC officials. During this period, a seemingly innocuous bill slipped through the legislature and was on Governor Paterson’s desk waiting to be signed. This legislation would have allowed fracking to go forward based on a 1992 Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS).
The Chapter determined that the 1992 GEIS did not address the high-volume hydraulic fracturing that would have taken place. Quick action was taken to impress upon the governor that a supplemental GEIS was needed. Governor Paterson, responding to our request, instituted a review that created the de facto moratorium that currently exists. The Chapter participated in the scoping process, commented on drafts and gave testimony at numerous hearings.
By October 2009 the Chapter was convinced that fracking represented a major threat to our environment and public health, and that no amount of regulation could make it safe. The Chapter further determined hydrofracking represented a big distraction from what should be our major goals: moving away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy. The Chapter ExCom passed a resolution calling for a ban on hydrofracking and became the first major environmental group in Albany to do so.
At this time, National was in the midst of a highly successful “Beyond Coal” campaign. Part of its strategy was to promote natural gas as a “bridge” fuel until renewable energy could take its place. The Atlantic Chapter was told that its resolution was “not consistent with existing Club policy.” Thus began the Atlantic Chapter’s long, arduous task of educating National.
Members of the Atlantic Chapter and several Sierra Club activists in the Southern Tier met with then-Vice President for Conservation Robin Mann, along with several National staff. We were appalled at their lack of detailed knowledge on the issue. At the meeting we discussed our concerns but were told not to speak publicly of the Chapter’s ban resolution.
In November 2009, the Chapter sent a delegation to San Francisco to meet with members of the National Board of Directors. Our representatives discovered that most Board members knew very little about hydrofracking. The few officers who were acquainted with the process insisted that “best practices” and “tough regulations” could address the problem. This was usually followed by the mantra: “We need natural gas as a bridge fuel.” We felt strongly that this should not be the Sierra Club’s vision.
We suspected that something was amiss. Why would the Club hold back on an issue that was already devastating Pennsylvania, Texas and over 30 other states and now threatening New York?
THE LATEST FROM SAN FRANCISCO
This resistance was exposed on February 2, 2012, when Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune revealed that the Club had accepted $26 million in donations from gas industry representatives. Many of us who had suspected this was occurring were actually relieved that the Club had finally “come clean.”
We were aware of former Executive Director Carl Pope’s relationship with natural gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens, and his participation in the infamous Aspen Summit in Colorado. At this conference, leaders from several large environmental organizations mingled with public officials, attorneys and corporate energy executives to carefully craft a message that extolled the virtues of shale gas and hydrofracking with the express purpose of reframing the presently negative public message with a positive spin: “to fast track increased demand for natural gas,” to extol “the clear benefits (energy, economic, and security) of natural gas . . . expand its environmentally beneficial use,” and “Radically expand efficiency and renewable resources backed up by natural gas.” ( http://aspensciencecenter.org/asc/critical-path-energy-summit)
This orientation was accompanied by the explicit understanding that, above all, “Only with the help of credible NGOs will a shift be possible.” The intent to paint a rosy picture of gas and its extraction process is to make a highly polluting industry acceptable by using phrases such as “best practices” and advocating for “tough regulations.” The key was to promote natural gas as a “bridge” fuel.
To be fair, even before National revealed the gas industry donations, we had already begun to see the fruits of our labors. In March 2010, with less than two days on the job, Michael Brune called a special meeting with delegates from New York and Pennsylvania to hear from us personally. Michael was very much in a listening mode. Soon after, the Club no longer referred to gas as a “clean” fuel that was expected to replace coal, and all mention of “bridge” fuel was removed from the Energy Policy. A whole new national campaign was also established to address the problems of shale gas.
National still has a long way to go to restore trust. We believe the Sierra Club must reestablish itself as a strong voice of reason in the national debate on hydrofracking, and call for a complete halt to this inherently destructive process. We hope that National will set the example for other large national environmental groups to follow.
Many were taken aback when President Obama said in his State of the Union address that we should increase the production of natural gas. How could the president say that? Might the complicity of national environmental groups have something to do with it?
The Atlantic Chapter’s fight is far from over. Now that our own national organization has “come clean,” maybe we will see a turning point in our campaign against fracking. Chapter members can take pride in playing a key role on both the state and national levels in pressing this issue forward.