Apparently President Obama is not the only one who has issues with donations coming from contributors he doesn’t want to be associated with. Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, announced earlier this month that Sierra Club has decided to turn down $30 million in donations from people connected with Chesapeake Energy, the country’s second-largest natural gas producer. This decision came after it was revealed that Sierra Club secretly received $26 million in donations from these donors between 2007 and 2010.
If Sierra Club fought against natural gas during that time, the donation might not be such a big issue, but as you can probably guess the NGO focused its efforts on other industries. During these years, under the leadership of Carl Pope, Sierra Club actually supported natural gas as an interim solution that is better than coal and oil. Not only that, but as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, “Carl Pope…has traveled the country promoting natural gas’s environmental benefits, sometimes alongside Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp.”
Pope himself explained his approach later on: “I’m a big-tent guy. We’re not going to save the world if we rely only on those who agree with the Sierra Club. There aren’t enough of them. My aim is getting it right for the long term. I can’t get anything accomplished if people think: ‘This guy is not an honest broker. He’s with the Sierra Club.’” Well, apparently Pope didn’t think there’s a contradiction between being an honest guy and not disclosing donations from gas companies and executives. Brune, however, who succeeded Pope in 2010, sees it differently and that’s why he convinced the board not to receive further donations from Chesapeake.
This is not the first time Sierra Club has been involved with ethical issues related to its connections with corporations. In 2008, it endorsed the ‘Green Works’ line of Clorox products, not disclosing initially that Sierra Club would receive a percentage of the sales of Green Works products. Now, with this new fiasco, new questions are being raised about the way Sierra Club works.
Here are four questions that summarize the main issues in the Sierra Club – Chesapeake story:
1. Is there something wrong with Sierra Club receiving donations from Chesapeake Energy?
Actually, I think there’s nothing wrong with it, as long Sierra Club is a) OK with corporate donations in general, and b) is transparent about these donations. I believe the line should be drawn between getting donations from corporations and their executives and avoiding it at all. Any other self-limitation is naïve at best.
Brune writes in his column “I recommended to the Board, and it agreed, to end the funding relationship between the Club and the gas industry, and all fossil fuel companies or executives.” It makes sense, but what about donations from Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, McDonald’s or APP? Are donations from these companies, or any other large corporation for that matter, better or more moral than donations from Chesapeake? I doubt that – you can easily find substantial social and environmental issues with almost every large company that will put it in conflict with Sierra Club’s policies and disqualify it from donating to the group. So if you really want to be honest, it’s either everyone or no one. Even donations from solar or wind companies can have their own setbacks and may influence a policy of an organization that is supposed to be independent of any sort of corporate pressure.
2. Was anything immoral about Sierra Club’s supportive position about natural gas?
I don’t think Sierra Club’s position was influenced from the fact it got money from Chesapeake. After all, it wasn’t the only environmental group that supported natural gas at that time, when fracking wasn’t yet such an issue. However, I do suspect that the ties between Sierra Club and Chesapeake helped enhance the enthusiasm of Sierra Club about natural gas and contributed to the tension between the organization’s national leadership and local chapters in some states, which opposed natural gas drilling. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, “the national group’s pro-gas stance has angered on-the-ground environmentalists in several states who say their concerns are being marginalized.”
One could only wonder whether things would have been different if money wasn’t involved, especially since Sierra Club has shifted now, under Brune’s leadership, to opposing natural gas calling “to leapfrog over gas whenever possible in favor of truly clean energy.”
3. What was the main problem, then, with the relationship between Sierra Club and Chesapeake?
I think the main issue is lack of transparency. Under no circumstances should an environmental advocacy group, especially a respected one like the Sierra Club, act like a super PAC. If they receive donations from corporations and their executives, they must be fully transparent about it and stop filing it as an anonymous donation. The credibility of environmental advocacy groups is their most important asset and to maintain it, especially in an organization that receives donations from businesses, transparency is essential.
4. Are Michael Brune’s actions satisfactory?
Unfortunately, no. Brune should be commended for what he did, but this is not enough. He should order a full investigation of the events by a third party and make sure that board members and executives that are still with Sierra Club are found responsible for hiding the donations and will be held accountable. Sierra Club should also enact a clear policy that will make sure such cases won’t happen in the future. If Sierra Club wants to continue to be a leading environmental advocacy group, it needs a serious cleanup, not just to say no to gas industry donations.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.