Sierra Club national leader says gas-patch overview not pretty

DENNIS WEBB/The Daily Sentinel—Michael Brune, executive director of the national Sierra Club, listens as Rifle-area resident Tony Cline talks Wednesday about ill health he says he has suffered as a result of nearby natural gas development. Brune, who has been touring the Four Corners region with his family on a working vacation, has led the Sierra Club in dropping its support for natural gas as a bridge fuel to alternative energy and becoming a critic of gas development’s impacts.

RIFLE — Michael Brune thinks he saw both the past and future of energy development while flying over Rifle on Wednesday, and is working to persuade more Americans to look at the issue the same way.

The executive director of the national Sierra Club got an aerial look at western Garfield County’s gas patch and visited with local residents who say they’ve been affected by drilling, as part of a working vacation he’s taking with his wife and three children in the Four Corners area.

His tour comes as the organization, under Brune’s three years of leadership, has abandoned its support of natural gas as a bridge fuel to alternative forms of energy and become a leading critic of hydraulic fracturing and other aspects of developing oil and gas.

“It was depressing, to be honest with you,” Brune said of the view he got from a plane piloted by Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight.

Well pads, roads leading to them and waste fluid pits became apparent from above, making for a less beautiful view than the one Brune said he enjoyed while driving to the Garfield County Regional Airport on Interstate 70.

But he noticed something else as well.

“There’s a lot of these little solar farms,” he observed as Gordon readied the plane for landing.

“… It’s as if our future and past are colliding,” Brune said.

To Brune and the Sierra Club, the future is now. While the gas industry and its supporters say natural gas is a critical piece of America’s energy puzzle due to the intermittent nature of some renewable energy sources and their current lack of scale, Brune says solar and wind are quickly establishing themselves as they become much cheaper.

Meanwhile, he contends natural gas development’s negative aspects are becoming better understood, from the climate impacts of methane emissions to the effects of fracking on human health.

“It moves me at a deeply personal level,” Brune said Wednesday, after hearing concerns such as those voiced by Rifle-area resident Tony Cline, who described fatigue, cold-like symptoms and other maladies he said resulted from fracking as close as a quarter-mile away from his home.

Brune’s flight also gave him an eagle’s view of the forest-topped Roan Plateau, which the Sierra Club and other conservation groups have at least temporarily protected from drilling as a result of a judge’s ruling in their lawsuit to challenge leases there.

Brune called the Roan “one of those places that you typically see on a Sierra Club calendar,” and said it was perplexing that conservationists had to go to court to protect such a place.


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