Sierra Club: No new gas plants

Group says 'bridge fuel' hurts potential of others

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Workers man an Encana oil rig near Parachute in this September 2011 photo. The Sierra Club is ending its support for natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future, saying it makes no sense to go from one dirty fuel source to another without exploring alternative energy possibilities.



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Workers man an Encana oil rig near Parachute in this September 2011 photo. The Sierra Club is ending its support for natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future, saying it makes no sense to go from one dirty fuel source to another without exploring alternative energy possibilities.

A powerhouse environmental group that has ended its national support of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable-energy future also is preparing to launch a campaign focusing on concerns surrounding oil and gas development in Colorado.

“We are working on developing that campaign and getting ready to launch it soon,” said Joshua Ruschhaupt, director of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain chapter.

The national Sierra Club’s evolving position regarding the natural gas industry has been drawing increasing attention, including in a critical Wall Street Journal editorial Wednesday. The paper said low natural gas prices resulting from the industry’s success in drilling likely have caused the Sierra Club to fear renewable energy may never be competitive, so its new position is aimed at reducing the gas supply and driving up its price.

The Sierra Club reportedly had received tens of millions of dollars from oil and gas companies in recent years. It supported the passage in Colorado of the 2010 Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, which requires some Front Range coal-fired power generation to be replaced by gas-fired plants. Its former executive director, Carl Pope, had been a proponent of turning to cleaner-burning natural gas as a short-term alternative to coal as a power source while the nation transitions to renewables.

Pope’s retirement was announced late last year. Earlier this month, new executive director Michael Brune told the National Journal the Sierra Club would be working to stop construction of new power plants fueled by natural gas.

Doug Hock, a spokesman in Colorado for the Encana USA oil and gas company, said the price of natural gas apparently has influenced the group’s position.

“For a lot of folks, unfortunately, the bridge has become a bridge too far. From an economic standpoint the abundance of natural gas has made renewables less economic,” he said.

But he said while renewable energy is important, a backup source of power generation is needed for when the sun or wind isn’t generating electricity.

“These folks, unfortunately, their vision is totally renewables and that’s just not even feasible at this point because of the intermittent nature of renewables,” he said.

Ruschhaupt said the Sierra Club’s changing position comes as more and more is learned about the problems associated with oil and gas development, from fears of hydraulic fracturing contaminating water, to air pollution, to loopholes in health and safety regulations.

“The key point here is that we don’t want to move from one dirty fuel source to another dirty fuel source rather than directly to renewable energy,” he said.

The Sierra Club recently announced a Beyond Natural Gas campaign, after having undertaken a similar campaign against coal.

“If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas,” Sierra Club president Robin Mann says on the group’s Beyond Natural Gas website.

Ruschhaupt said the natural gas campaign has a new name but as far as he knows, the Sierra Club long has had a goal of seeing the nation move beyond natural gas by 2050.

He said one way the Sierra Club is hoping to help Americans move immediately to renewable energy is through a new partnership with the Sungevity solar company. Under the program, homeowners in several states including Colorado essentially can rent their rooftops to Sungevity for solar panel installation and see immediate energy savings without upfront costs or a financing requirement, the Sierra Club said in a news release. They also get a $750 cash gift card, and Sungevity donates $750 to the Sierra Club for the referral.

The Wall Street Journal called the Sierra Club’s effort to shut down natural gas production “no idle threat.” The paper said the group has deep financial pockets, noted its success in helping prevent construction of new coal and nuclear power plants, and worried about the impact the Sierra Club could have on oil and gas jobs and American electricity prices.

The 120-year-old Sierra Club calls itself America’s largest grassroots environmental group, with more than 1.4 million members.

Jeremy Nichols, with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said it’s good to see the Sierra Club talk about the need to move away from fossil fuels, even if a lot of details about how to do so still must be worked out.

“Obviously when a big organization like that says something like that — ‘Beyond Natural Gas’ — it does carry some weight,” he said.

He thinks the more strident position being taken by the group also may help mend some internal rifts that may have existed between national leadership and local-level members.

“I think locally, a lot of Sierra Club volunteers were very concerned about the impacts of natural gas development,” he said.

The Sierra Club is co-sponsoring an anti-hydraulic-fracturing rally in Erie Saturday, with Encana as its target.

Ruschhaupt, who became Rocky Mountain chapter president in 2010, said that as far as he knows, old Sierra Club messaging and talking points on natural gas never had been implemented in Colorado. But he said the new Colorado campaign “is fully integrated with the national Beyond Natural Gas campaign.”

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said Colorado has some of the strongest rules in the country when it comes to requiring responsible oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing. And he noted that it was one of the first states in the country to develop a rule requiring public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

“We don’t think that a war on natural gas is appropriate. We think natural gas is the fuel of the future and it is obviously plentiful. We all need to be working together to make it remain in our energy portfolio,” he said.

He said his conservative estimate is that the oil and gas industry generates 43,800 direct jobs in Colorado and has a direct annual economic impact of $20.5 billion.

Dempsey said that while the Sierra Club “is a force to be reckoned with,” the domestic development of shale oil and gas has done much to help to create badly needed jobs during a down economy.

“This really is a jobs issue and I guess I think they’re kind of on the wrong side of history on this one,” he said.



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