Business

Beyond reason | Don C. Brunell

Apparently, the battle for clean energy can be a very dirty business.

For years, the Sierra Club has been waging an all-out war to end the use of coal. Dubbed “Beyond Coal,” the campaign includes a hit list of coal projects the Sierra Club is targeting, including “green” projects designed to reduce coal plant emissions to zero.

The Sierra Club is getting help in its war on coal from the Obama administration. Not surprising, since candidate Obama famously warned that, as president, he would endeavor to bankrupt the coal industry.

As The New York Times reported in March, “The Obama administration’s proposed rule to control greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants — the first ever — could go far toward closing out the era of old-fashioned coal-burning power generation.”  The result, say analysts, will be steeply higher electricity prices.

The Sierra Club has also been getting help in its Beyond Coal campaign from some in the natural gas industry.

According to The Washington Post, from 2007-2010 the group received $26 million from Chesapeake Energy and others in the gas industry to fund its anti-coal campaign.

Although news of the arrangement caused controversy and embarrassment for both parties, CEO Aubrey McClendon said he has no regrets about working with the Sierra Club to go after the coal industry. “We’re in a market share struggle with coal,” McClendon said. “As a result of that campaign, 150 new coal plants were not built. That demand will go to natural gas.”

Following a leadership shakeup, the Sierra Club ended its relationship with Chesapeake Energy but didn’t return any of the money.

As part of its anti-coal campaign, the Sierra Club had said that natural gas provides an affordable, cleaner alternative to coal. No worries about ending coal use, they said. Natural gas is the perfect bridge fuel as America transitions to renewable energy.

The Department of Energy reports that natural gas electric plants produce 45 percent less carbon than older coal plants, although newer coal plants are much cleaner. Even the liberal Union of Concerned Scientists admits that the lower emissions from burning natural gas "translate into public health benefits.”

 

But now, the Sierra Club has done an about-face, announcing a new campaign: “Beyond Natural Gas.”

After lobbying for years to convert retiring coal-powered plants to natural gas, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune now says the group wants an end to all fossil fuels. “As we push to retire coal plants, we’re going to work to make sure we’re not simultaneously switching to natural-gas infrastructure. [We’re] going to be preventing new gas plants from being built whenever we can.”

 

Why the head-spinning reversal?

 

It appears that natural gas is a victim of its own success. The boom in natural gas production made possible by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has made the fuel far more economical than the renewable energy sources favored by environmentalists.

Over the years, the powerful Sierra Club has successfully lobbied to block nuclear energy, reduce domestic oil production and put coal-fired power plants out of business. Now, in order to bolster uncompetitive wind, solar and biofuels, they are trying to restrict availability of natural gas in order to drive up the price to the levels of alternative fuels.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

Higher energy prices may suit the Sierra Club’s political agenda, but working to drive up energy costs does a disservice to millions of American families and employers struggling to make ends meet in today’s tough economy.

Frankly, it’s reminiscent of the famous quote attributed to 18th century French Queen Marie Antoinette. Told that her subjects were starving for lack of bread, she replied, “Let them eat cake.”

 

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