Four years ago, the Sierra Club launched the “Beyond Coal” campaign. It called for, among other things, replacing coal power plants with natural gas facilities that emit less carbon. That backing was seen by some environmentalists as a betrayal and a tacit approval of the American fracking boom.
But in November, the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors voted to change that position, adopting a policy that opposes fracking. Their position is not simply an effort to regulate the industry, as the Obama administration did last week in proposed regulations on the natural gas drillers. It intends to get rid of fracking entirely.
Sierra Club’s move to eradicate fracking is the last, and arguably biggest, in a long line of environmental groups that have slowly moved to squarely oppose fracking. In many ways it is the final nail in the coffin, leaving the natural gas industry with few, if any, moderate supporters in the mainstream environmental movement.
Fracking wasn’t always so contentious. In the mid-2000s, most people still didn’t have a clue what an “unconventional shale gas play” was. For those that did, it was hard to see the downside to producing more domestic energy and transitioning to natural gas, a fuel that burns 50 percent cleaner than coal. But as the industry took off thanks to technological advances, environmental groups started picking sides. Some, like Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund, took the view that natural gas was a bridge fuel to a clean energy future. Others, like Greenpeace and Earthworks, remained skeptical about the drilling process’ effect on drinking water and impacts to climate change.
But once natural gas production exploded, environmental groups took notice, according to Terry McCallister, chairman and CEO of Washington Gas Company.
“With the abundance of natural gas, there were some environmental groups that went ‘Uh-oh, it’s a big thing…now we’ve got to press on that issue,’” McCallister said at a press conference in December.
Spencer Black, vice president at Sierra Club, agreed that there has been an evolution in how green groups have viewed fracking. Sierra Club’s switch has the organization joining big NGOs like Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace, 350.org, MoveOn.org, and Friends of the Earth in supporting all out fracking bans.
“At one time many years ago, natural gas was seen as a bridge fuel to a clean energy future. Now I see it more as a gang plank,” Black said in an interview.
From 2007-2010, Sierra Club reportedly accepted over $25 million in donations from Chesapeake Energy, an Oklahoma City-based company and second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. The backlash from that revelation could’ve helped push the group from embracing natural gas to calling for stricter regulations on the industry.
Lee Lane, an energy expert at the conservative Hudson Institute, criticized Sierra Club’s push for an outright ban on fracking as moving away from their original, “more rational” position.
“Sierra Club was…simply swamped by green groups’ opposition, which was really sparked by the neighborhood effects,” Lane said in an interview.
Fracking brings with it air, water, and noise pollution, as well as extra truck traffic and bigger budgets needed to accommodate increases in local population, Lane said. And industry didn’t exactly ingratiate itself with locals.
“There’s never been an oil and gas boom that didn’t cause some sort of environmental damage,” Lane said.
American Gas Association CEO Dave McCurdy said the shift from cautious support to outright bans occurred when the price of natural gas plummeted. The drop in prices, he said, “threw a curve” at activists who thought the high cost of energy would help force developments in clean, renewable alternatives.
By late 2009, natural gas prices dropped more than 50 percent, while production continued to soar. In 2010, the anti-fracking documentary Gasland was released and won an Academy Award, bringing major mainstream attention to the practice.
While most environmental organizations entirely reject fracking now, there are two groups left that will engage with the industry: the Environmental Defense Fund and the Clean Air Task Force.
Both are part of a coalition called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which advocates for the responsible development of shale resources like natural gas.
Mark Brownstein, a top lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund, described the group’s position on fracking as “pragmatic.”
“At the end of the day there’s no disagreement between us and others about where we want to go,” Brownstein said in an interview. “We want to go to a world of zero carbon energy…but reasonable minds can differ about how quickly we can get there.”
Sierra Club’s Black argues that when methane emissions are considered, natural gas is equal to if not worse than coal when it comes to greenhouse gas effects.
The EPA has a different view. Administration officials say that with the proper methane controls, transitioning to natural gas is a net gain for the climate.
EDF has taken some flack from other green groups for getting too friendly with the gas industry, Dan Fiorino, director of the center for environmental policy at American University, said in an interview.
“This is sort of a classic division in the environmental advocacy community,” Fiorino said, as environmentalist groups struggle to decide how much to work with the energy companies to achieve what they view as incremental improvements, versus outright opposition.
Brownstein thinks greens have a responsibility to engage the industry, but he’s also quick to point out he’s not blindly embracing natural gas, either.
“It is naïve to think an industry with many thousands of companies would be able to police itself,” Brownstein said in a statement. “A basic set of regulations are absolutely necessary to assure the public that all companies will play by the same set of rules,” he said.
“It’s a longstanding difference in strategy,” Fiorino said. But he said both points of view are necessary to keep organizations like EDF from getting too cozy with gas advocates, and help them push the industry to frack gas more responsibly.
Even though environmental groups opposing fracking dwarf the supporters, there is no end to fracking in sight. That is in part thanks to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for converting coal fired power plants to natural gas.
Analysts also don’t expect production to slow down much anytime soon. And any hopes for passing legislation to impose new rules on the industry were all but eliminated when Republicans seized control of Congress.
The public, however, has mixed feelings about fracking. Morning Consult polling figures show a plurality of voters think fracking is unsafe for the environment. Just 57 percent are familiar with the practice of fracking at all.
If greens get their way on certain issues, like requiring natural gas drillers to unveil the chemicals used during the drilling process, they could use that information as fuel to further public concern over this issue.
But for now, fracking’s here to stay.