Working on a Dream

September 02, 2013

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

-- John Muir

"We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club joins in celebrating working people everywhere. As Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said about the growing collaboration between the labor movement and other grassroots groups: "It takes all of us working together to get it done."

Fifty years after Dr. King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, and nearly five years after we elected the nation's first African American president, the movements for economic, racial, and environmental justice have made historic gains, but daunting challenges remain:

  • The clean-energy movement has momentum, with solar and wind power growing by leaps and bounds and the coal and nuclear industries on the ropes. Studies show that renewable energy and energy efficiency investments create far more jobs per dollar spent than fossil fuels. Yet well-funded climate deniers continue to obfuscate reality and slow progress.
  • More than 100,000 people gathered last week in Washington, D.C., to recommit themselves to action for racial justice, jobs, and freedom on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Yet this year, the Supreme Court eviscerated one of the core gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and white families, on average, still earn about $2 for every $1 that black and Latino families make. Meanwhile, communities of color are still disproportionately poisoned by corporate polluters.
  • Young people across the globe are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers for economic and environmental justice. But their generation faces an uncertain future. Student debt in the U.S. totals $1 trillion, and one-third of 20 to 24 year olds in the U.S. are neither employed nor studying.
  • The immigrant rights movement, with the support of the Sierra Club and others, succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Yet a recalcitrant House has caused hope to fade for comprehensive immigration reform in the near future, even though deportations are at record levels, and millions of undocumented immigrant workers remain in the shadows of our society.
  • The labor movement is surging, too, with fast-food strikes and emerging-worker organizing sweeping the nation. But there's still a long road back from historically low union density, and the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us has grown wider than ever.   

These seemingly separate problems are linked -- and so are their solutions. We can overcome those obstacles and build the "Beloved Community" that Dr. King often spoke of -- but only if we do it together. We need each other.

That's why labor, racial justice, immigrant rights, and voting rights organizations are joining with the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Greenpeace in building the Democracy Initiative.

The Democracy Initiative was formed in response to a political climate where, owing to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, wealthy corporate polluters and union-busters like the Koch brothers wield unprecedented and corrosive influence in the corridors of power. Our immediate goals include supporting voters' rights, combating voter ID laws, and curbing aggressive use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. Our real purpose, though, is to restore fairness to our democracy.

Although we may never be able to outspend the union-busting corporate polluters, we do outnumber them. By acting strategically and together, we can use our people power to beat their dollar power every time. If we want to help working families, protect our air and water, and achieve justice for all Americans, we must first defend our democracy.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club celebrates working people -- and the growing unity of the labor and environmental movements in our quest for genuine democracy and justice for all.

Why Keystone Flunks the Climate Test

August 29, 2013

In June President Obama set a climate test for his decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He said he will not approve the pipeline if it would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. Today the Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and 13 partner groups have released a report that settles the issue unequivocally: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster.

Our report, "FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test," spells out the full consequences of building the pipeline.

Start with the one fact that the State Department, the U.S. EPA, climate scientists, and even Wall Street and industry analysts all agree on: The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will create massive amounts of carbon pollution. Tar sands, after all, are the world’s dirtiest and most carbon-intensive source of oil. Oil Change International estimates that the pipeline would carry and emit more than 181-million metric tons of carbon pollution each year. That’s the pollution equivalent of adding 37.7 million cars to U.S. roads, or 51 new coal-fired power plants.

The State Department, though, tried to ignore this 181-million metric ton elephant. It argued in its environmental review of Keystone XL that tar sands development was inevitable, regardless of whether the pipeline is built. That's not true for several reasons.

Tar sands can be processed only at specialized refineries. The accessible U.S. and Canadian refineries capable of handling it are already at or near capacity. In order to expand production, tar sands producers must reach the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the heavy crude can be refined or, more likely, exported.

Although other pipeline projects have been proposed to export tar sands east, west, and south from western Canada, all of them face legal, technical, economic, and political obstacles that make them unlikely. Using rail is too expensive because tar sands transport requires special heated rail cars and loading terminals. Industry experts and financial firms like Goldman Sachs have already said this will be cost-prohibitive.

Keystone XL is critical for the Canadian oil industry to meet its goal of massive expansion in the tar sands. You don't need to take our word for it, though. Just this week, Canada's independent Pembina Institute uncovered documents from the industry itself that make that case. Briefing notes prepared for Canadian natural resources minister (and pipeline proponent) Joe Oliver state: "in order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project."

The U.S. Interior Department has already joined the Environmental Protection Agency in criticizing the State Department's environmental review for disregarding how the Keystone XL pipeline would affect wildlife and waterways. Given that we now know the State Department's review was conducted by a consultant with strong ties to Keystone XL's backer, TransCanada, and to the tar sands industry, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

In fact, earlier this month, the State Department's own office of inspector general confirmed that it has opened an into inquiry how its Keystone XL review was conducted. Perhaps the most serious charge is that State Department officials tried to cover up evidence of conflicts of interest.

For an administration that's actually done many good things on climate, the State Department’s environmental review of Keystone XL is both a failure and an embarrassment. It’s time to kick the oil industry lobbyists out of the room, listen to the scientists, weigh the facts, and reject this pipeline once and for all.

Add your voice to the growing chorus: By President Obama's own standard, Keystone XL should not be approved.

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking? Yes We Can!

August 22, 2013

One of the worst consequences of President Obama's reckless "all of the above" energy policy is the blight of oil and gas rigs that has spread across our public lands -- often right next to national parks and wilderness areas. Based on my own family's camping trip this summer, I can testify that the sight of natural gas flares in the night sky adds nothing to the wilderness experience.

What's more, most of this new drilling is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is so dangerous, destructive, and polluting that there's no reason why any additional public lands should be leased to drillers. Air-polluting gas flares are bad enough -- running the risk of contaminating the water table of a national park is unthinkable.

"All of the above" also ignores the fact that, if we want to limit climate disruption from fossil fuels, we need a policy that leaves most of them below the ground.  

Nevertheless, all summer long the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on a proposed update of federal regulations for oil and gas fracking on the public lands it manages. Presumably that's an attempt to honor a pledge President Obama made in his 2012 State of the Union address -- that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Given the effect on our climate of extracting and burning all of that natural gas, and that fracking is the primary way it will happen, the president has set an impossible goal. Yet the proposed new regulations manage to fail even to adequately address the risks of the fracking that is already occurring on leased public lands.

There are at least seven serious flaws with the current proposed rules:

1. Although the draft rules require partial disclosure of chemicals used after fracking occurs, they should require full public disclosure of all chemicals to be used before fracking starts. The industry should not be allowed to hide behind claims of "trade secrets" to exempt some chemicals from disclosure. Other statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, recognize this principle and specifically reject claims of trade secrecy in reports of discharges. Why should fracking get an exemption?

2. As has already begun to happen in states, we need to move away from the practice of storing toxic fracking waste in open-air pits. Ultimately, it should be abolished altogether. Instead, the draft rules propose to continue this outdated and dangerous practice. If states like New Mexico and Colorado are putting tight restrictions on open-air pits, shouldn't we do at least the same for lands held in the public trust?

3. The draft fails to update currently outdated well-construction rules. This is critical if we're to avoid water contamination. In fact, the BLM's current draft is even weaker in this respect than the one it circulated last year. For example, it allows the industry to test only a few wells, rather than confirm that every individual well meets construction standards.

4. The draft doesn't require baseline water testing before fracking is approved. This is essential to help protect drinking water. It is the best way to determine whether water has been contaminated by fracking.

5. The draft completely fails to address the air pollution from oil and gas drilling. Methane emissions from natural gas wells are just one of the serious problems this ignores.

6. The draft doesn't establish safe setbacks from homes, schools, and sensitive environmental features. Public lands are often very close to communities. More than 1,400 public schools across six western states are within one mile of federal oil and gas resources.

7. The draft would continue to allow the use of diesel in fracking fluids. Even the Obama administration's own advisory committee on fracking unequivocally said that was a bad idea.

All of the problems listed above should be addressed for public land leases that have already happened. But let's be clear: In the case of federal lands that haven't already been leased, the BLM should allow no new fracking at all. And sensitive and unique areas (like those adjacent to national parks) should be placed off-limits to oil and gas fracking whether they've been leased or not.

Already, hundreds of thousands of people have let the BLM know that these draft rules fail to properly protect our public lands from the oil and gas industries. Time's running out, though -- the comment period closes after August 23. Let the BLM know where you stand.

For Coal, the End Is Near

July 09, 2013

You can still find people who say they believe coal has a future. By and large, though, they're the same people who believe their future is in coal.

Perhaps that's just human nature. The more you think you stand to lose, the harder it is to accept -- much less embrace -- progress. That's why Western Union walked away from the telephone, Microsoft fumbled the Internet, and Sony ceded the LCD display industry to upstart Korean rivals.

Soon, everyone will find it hard to believe that we ever thought generating power by burning coal was a good idea. We say coal's "dirty," but that one adjective covers everything from water pollution to mercury poisoning to childhood asthma to climate-disrupting carbon emissions. Coal contributes to four out of the five leading causes of death around the world. If coal-fired power plants had never existed and someone proposed building the very first one today, the public outcry would be deafening.

Thankfully, two developments in the 21st century have sealed coal's fate. First, we have begun holding utilities accountable for some of the health and environmental costs of burning coal (the Obama administration's determination to limit carbon pollution from both new and old coal plants is the culmination of this trend). Coal was never cheap if you considered the health and environmental costs. Second, we have begun to realize there are better, smarter ways to meet our energy needs -- particularly through renewable technologies and better energy efficiency.

Of course, since coal-fired power plants are our biggest source of carbon emissions, maintaining the delusion that coal can compete against cleaner energy sources necessitates dismissing the science behind climate disruption. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity has gone so far as to convince (with the aid of copious campaign contributions) more than 150 Republican members of Congress to sign a "No Climate-Tax Pledge" that effectively requires them to vote against any legislation that addresses climate change. That helps explain why, according to a just-released report from the office of Representative Henry Waxman, Republican congressional members representing districts that suffered the most extreme warming last year nevertheless cast anti-climate votes more than nine out of ten times.

How long can these politicians successfully put the interests of polluters ahead of their own constituents? Especially when, compounding the irony, 75 percent of our wind-energy capacity is in congressional districts represented by Republicans (at least for now). In the long run, democracy, justice, and common sense will trump ideology.

Sooner than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago, coal's defenders will find themselves firmly on the wrong side of history. I believe we will not use coal for energy at all within the next couple of decades. When that day finally comes, it won't be the end of a "war on coal," but of coal's war on all of us.

Last Stop -- The Grand Canyon

July 05, 2013

As my family and I finished up our two-week road trip through the American West, our last big stop was one that's made by five million people every year. Forget about Chartres, Giza, and the Great Wall -- the Grand Canyon takes your breath away like no other wonder of the world. It did when I was 13, and it still does. I couldn't wait to show it to my own kids.

We have every right to be proud, as Americans, that we've permanently protected iconic landscapes like Grand Canyon National Park. And I'm proud that the Sierra Club and its volunteers have played an important role over the last century in making it happen. The Club's new Our Wild America campaign will continue that tradition.

That's good, because as we learned during our trip, the job of protection is far from finished. Not only are some unique and irreplaceable landscapes still vulnerable, but many of the places that we have protected are under fresh assault from drilling and mining. During our first night camping in a Utah state park near Canyonlands National Park, from our tent we could actually see natural gas flaring from nearby oil wells.

Harder to see -- but just as disturbing -- was what's happening at the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park was first protected by President Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago -- initially as a national monument. But most of the public wilderness lands immediately surrounding the park are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, President Obama imposed a 20-year moratorium (the longest allowable by law) on developing new uranium mines in that surrounding area. That made sense because uranium mines could easily contaminate the watershed that includes the national park.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. to reopen an old uranium mine located in the Kaibab National Forest, just south of the park. That should be a serious concern for anyone who cares about the Grand Canyon, but it's especially worrisome to the local Havasupai people. We met with tribal elders who shared both their fears about radioactive contamination and that the mine would disturb lands that are sacred to their people.

Shouldn't the Grand Canyon be considered sacred by all Americans? Do we want to risk contaminating it for what amounts to forever -- just so mining companies can profit from high uranium prices? Not to mention that, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, Grand Canyon tourism generates $687 million in annual revenue.

There's a solution, and it's the same one used by Teddy Roosevelt. A proposed new Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument would strengthen protections for the entire area -- just as the current new-mining moratorium has, but without an expiration date. By designating such a monument, President Obama could permanently protect the unique wilderness area near the Grand Canyon from not only uranium mining but also overgrazing, logging, drilling, and other destructive practices. The lands would remain accessible for outdoor recreation -- and for tourists like my family and the other millions of people who come to be astounded every year.

Let President Obama know -- we all care about the Grand Canyon and the beautiful lands that surround it. Let's protect them for future generations with a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.

Back in the Game

June 25, 2013

This afternoon, I had a short meeting with President Obama that left me more convinced than ever that he's serious about tackling the climate crisis. Sure enough, later under a sweltering sun at Georgetown University, I watched him calmly and forcefully restate the case for taking action on the climate crisis in one of the most important speeches of his presidency. He also outlined a Climate Action Plan that will help curb carbon pollution, develop clean energy sources, promote energy efficiency, and assert American global leadership on climate issues. Taken together, the new policies directly address what the president rightly calls "the global threat of our time."

Coming on the heels of an unprecedented string of extreme weather disasters, the plan recognizes that we must work on both the causes and the consequences of climate disruption.

But the two most significant commitments the president made were bona fide game-changers: First, he said that he will use the full authority of the Clean Air Act to limit air pollution from both new and existing power plants. Second, he declared that he will not approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it harms the climate, because to do so would not be in the national interest.

The science on Keystone's potentially catastrophic effect on climate could not be more clear. The rejection of this carbon pollution pipeline will be a major climate disaster averted.

Coal-fired power plants, however, are a disaster that has persisted for far too long and, as I listened to the president's speech, I shared the exuberance of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal activists and so many others in the movement who have fought to end this injustice. Coal-fired power plants are currently responsible for nearly one-third of U.S. carbon pollution; although only a decade ago, that share was greater than one-half. The recent and welcome decline in U.S. carbon emissions to 1986 levels is the result of a decade-long trend away from using coal to generate electricity. Extending clean-air standards to older coal plants, many of which have been polluting for decades, will speed that trend. Not only will this significantly reduce our carbon pollution, but it will also save tens of thousands of lives, since the plants emit many other toxic air pollutants, from sulfur dioxide to mercury.

To meet the challenge of the climate crisis, however, we must do much more than simply celebrate the end of the Coal Age -- we need to hasten a new era of smart, clean energy, energy efficiency, and the jobs that support them. Here, too, the president's plan lays out a practical vision for the future. The president is justifiably proud that generation of renewable energy from wind and solar doubled during his first term; now he has committed to seeing it double again. One of the ways his administration will make that happen is by responsibly siting more renewable-energy projects on public lands. The goal is to install enough such projects to power 6 million homes by 2020.

Other major initiatives will promote energy efficiency in both the public and private sectors, begin the critical work of developing a "smart grid" energy infrastructure, raise the bar on fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and tackle the problem of climate-polluting hydrofluorocarbons and methane. Leakage and flaring of methane, which currently accounts for 9 percent of U.S. carbon pollution (and has a global warming potential that is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide), is one of the reasons why natural gas doesn't deserve its reputation as a "cleaner" fossil fuel.

Is everything in the Climate Action Plan workable -- or even a good idea to begin with? Of course not. Some ideas, like pursuing "clean coal" technology, investing in nuclear power, fracking, and building overseas markets for U.S. natural gas are either wrong-headed or dead ends. On balance, though, the plan offers a way for our nation to move forward strongly. Even if not every path offered is a good one, it's never been clearer what our destination must be -- and that this president wants to get us there.

Beyond the president's specific commitments, however, the most important takeaway from his speech is that he is determined to "personally own" this issue. That means taking responsibility in the face of what he has called a "moral obligation." He is far from alone in recognizing such an obligation. A national poll earlier this year found that 93 percent of Americans agree that we have "a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged."

Although the president's desire to save the planet certainly resonates with environmentalists like myself and the Sierra Club's  2.1 million members and supporters, that alone can't account for the overwhelming support of more than 90 percent of the American population. Our "moral obligation to future generations," though, is a different matter. If I ever need to get re-energized about fighting the climate crisis, all I need to do is look into the eyes of my kids. I know the same is true for President Obama. His exact words today: "As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act."

The president's plan may one day be seen as a critical turning point, but let's not forget that this struggle is far from over. The president himself emphasized that this will be a long and rocky road. In the near term, at least, powerful special interests will continue to throw up roadblocks and obstacles at every turn. Congress, for its part, has resolutely and shamefully shirked its own moral obligation. What matters today, though, is that President Barack Obama has reasserted his leadership on climate with both words and deeds. For that, he deserves both our deepest gratitude and our whole-hearted support (and here's where you can send it to him).

Hope is back in the game. Let's win it.

A Plateau Under Siege

June 17, 2013

From Moab, in Utah, we drove for about three hours along the Colorado River to the town of Rifle, Colorado. We came to see Colorado's Roan Plateau, which looms 3,500 feet above the town and is a beautiful, biologically diverse landscape of canyons and waterfalls that is popular with hunters, fishers, wildlife viewers, and hikers. The plateau provides critical habitat for sage grouse, and it's also where you'll find some of the purest strains of the imperiled Colorado cutthroat trout. In fact, the plateau is one of the four most biologically rich areas in Colorado -- and the only one not protected as a national park.

Unfortunately, the Roan Plateau is also the epicenter of a natural-gas fracking epidemic that threatens to spread to the top of the plateau itself. In Rifle, we met up again with EcoFlights founder Bruce Gordon so we could see the area from above. Several things were obvious during the flight.

First, the Roan Plateau is a wild and gorgeous place. Second, fracking has already begun near the bottom edge of the plateau. Third, fracking has basically gutted the valley -- we saw hundreds of fracking sites, with pipelines everywhere, gravel pits, and waste ponds. Some sites were only a couple of blocks from homes. After the flight, we heard firsthand stories from locals like Tony Cline and Rick Roles. Tony was sickened for months after fracking began near his home. If you've seen the movie Gasland, then you might remember Rick, a soft-spoken cowboy who, since fracking came to the valley, has seen his horses and livestock succumb to birth defects and miscarriages along with other horrors.

The juxtaposition of the industrial fracking in the valley and the unspoiled wilderness above it underscored the urgency of convincing the Bureau of Land Management to backtrack on its original plan to permit fracking on the plateau itself. Last year, the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations won a legal victory that forced the BLM to withdraw its original plan to allow oil and gas companies to drill thousands of wells there. The agency is now in the process of formally reevaluating those oil and gas leases.

I hope the BLM reaches the right decision, but part of me still can't believe there ever was any question over whether it made sense to take a place as special as the Roan Plateau and cover it with well pads. When President Obama talks about "all of the above," does he understand that some people hear that as a license to "destroy everything"?

Our short airplane flight uncovered one more irony. Along with the fracking craziness on the valley floor, we could see several large solar farms as well as smaller rooftop solar PV systems. The answer to why we don't need to frack everything in sight was right there below us. It reminded me of something the writer William Gibson once said: "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed."

Clean, renewable energy is our future. It is already here. The question isn't whether energy development in this area will shift to the renewables -- it's whether we will lose the Roan Plateau before we can make that happen. The world has only one Roan Plateau. Add your voice to the outcry against destroying it.

From Spectacular to Unthinkable

June 14, 2013

You're going to have to trust me on this: Dead Horse Point State Park is a lot more scenic than it sounds. It's located just northeast of Canyonlands National Park, and it has the beautiful, dramatic high-desert canyon scenery that this part of the West is famous for. You can't spend time in this landscape and not come away both inspired and rejuvenated. When my family and I camped there this week, we couldn't get over how beautiful it was -- like stepping into a Sierra Club calendar photograph.

One bit of scenery we didn't count on, though, were the flares from nearby oil and gas operations only hundreds of yards away from the park. Unfortunately, that juxtaposition is happening every day as mining and drilling companies rush to extract profits from these wild lands before they can be protected.

You probably haven't been to Dead Horse Point State Park, but you may have been lucky enough to visit the Canyonlands or Arches national parks. Stunning as they are, they account for only a fraction of this unique landscape, which covers 1.4 million acres of public lands. The proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument would keep these lands -- which belong to all of us -- from being destroyed by more mining and drilling.

One person who's been working on the ground -- and in the air -- on behalf of the Greater Canyonlands is Bruce Gordon, the president and founder of EcoFlight -- a nonprofit conservation organization that educates and advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat by taking people up in small aircraft to let them see for themselves what's happening.

Bruce took my daughter Olivia and me on a flyover in the Greater Canyonlands that I don't think either of us will ever forget. The bright blue potash mining evaporation ponds only a couple of miles east of Dead Horse Point (and right next to the Colorado River) were both weird and scary. The tar sands mining was just as scary.

That's right -- eastern Utah has the largest tar-sands deposits in the United States. Energy companies already hold leases for tar sands strip-mining on over 90,000 acres in the area. Some mining has begun on private land, and there's a proposal underway to expand it to public lands within the borders of the proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument.

Tar-sands mining is a terrible idea anywhere for all kinds of reasons, but the idea of doing it right next door to some of our greatest national parks, in one of the most spectacular wilderness landscapes of North America, is beyond unacceptable -- like slashing the Mona Lisa with a box cutter.

Greater Canyonlands National Monument would preserve a landscape that has thousands of years of human history, from Native Americans to the Wild Bunch. It would protect one of the greatest remaining wildernesses in the continental U.S. so that it can be explored and enjoyed by countless future generations of hikers, cyclists, climbers, campers, mountain bikers, rafters, kayakers, sportsmen, and even people who just really love looking at beautiful scenery or a gazing at a night sky filled with stars.

The Greater Canyonlands are part of our American heritage, and all of us can do something to help ensure that they aren't destroyed. Start by sending a message to President Obama asking him to permanently protect the Greater Canyonlands by naming it as a national monument.

Touring Our Wild America

June 13, 2013

Talk about mixing business with pleasure. My wife Mary and I have piled the kids into a minivan and are spending two weeks putting the Sierra Club's motto into action: explore, enjoy, and protect the planet -- or at least the amazing part of it that is the American West. We're camping, hiking, and biking -- but we're also talking to and learning from local activists about the lands we're exploring and the efforts underway to protect them.

Not coincidentally, the Sierra Club is also launching its new Our Wild America campaign this month. It brings together all the elements of our work to protect (and enjoy) our national wild heritage. You can learn more about the campaign here (and you'll also get updates and photos from our family tour, including four-year-old Sebastian's mishap with a cactus and eight-year-old Olivia's sketch of Nevada mountains).

Mostly, we're having a lot of fun, but our family road trip also illustrates why the Our Wild America campaign is so important.

For instance, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to take a trip like this that includes iconic places such as the Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon. That's why one focus of Our Wild America is making sure people have access to nature close to home, whether it's a state park or an urban greenbelt.

We all need places where we can unwind in nature and connect with our family, friends, and community. My own favorite place to take our kids camping is only a few hours away from home, in a small state park with a beautiful old-growth redwood grove.

Here's a tip: If you're looking to find fantastic wild places near you, check out the Sierra Club's volunteer-led outings. Sierra Club members lead hikes in every state.

Many of the lands that our family is traveling through on our trip are part of America's vast National Forest system. We have more than 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands in the U.S., and they include some of the most spectacular places in the world. They also provide our single largest source of outdoor recreation opportunities (which contribute hundreds of billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy and support 6.5 million jobs). If the Sierra Club ever gets tired of me, I just might apply for a job with Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, who did a great job taking our whole family on a bike ride in the proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument in Utah earlier this week.

Today we're in Colorado (thankfully not near the terrible wildfires), where we hiked in another proposed national monument, Browns Canyon. Although we were on foot, Browns Canyon is most famous for its whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River. River guide Bill Dvorak and other folks from the Friends of Browns Canyon told us how they have been trying to get permanent protection for this area for the past ten years. Colorado Senator Mark Udall is currently working on that, although the current Congress has a dismal record on public lands protection. Browns Canyon is just one of many at-risk public lands and waters that could be permanently protected through national monument or wilderness designations -- another big priority for Our Wild America.

The president is empowered to create new national monuments by executive order, and such designations have been shown to stimulate local economies and bring increased job growth. President Obama has created seven new national monuments so far, but many special places like the Browns Canyon remain in need of protection.

We also need more wilderness. Under the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, wilderness is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Only about five percent of the land in the United States has been protected as wilderness, and half of that is in Alaska. Increasing pressures from mining, drilling, logging, and other development make it essential that we expand on our wilderness legacy while we still can.

Mining, drilling, fracking, and other forms of fossil-fuel extraction are by far the biggest threat to most of our public lands. One of Our Wild America's top priorities is to stand up to those who would destroy these wild places for the sake of profits. That includes slowing the out-of-control development of the western coalfields, stopping oil drilling in America's Arctic, and preventing the expansion of fracking for natural gas.

Many things have changed since the Sierra Club was founded 121 years ago, but our unwavering commitment to protecting America's beautiful and diverse wildlands isn't one of them. We believe that every American should be able to both enjoy the great outdoors and experience the special quality of wild places, and that this nation's public lands, waters, air, and wildlife are held in "public trust" for all of us.

Mary and I love showing these special places to our kids. Thanks to the Our Wild America campaign -- and the incredibly dedicated volunteers working so hard to protect our wilderness heritage -- I hope many generations to come will have the same opportunity.

LNG Exports: The Wrong Side of History

May 29, 2013

Most Americans have probably heard about the "boom" in natural gas, with U.S. production up by one-third since 2005. Besides historically low natural gas prices, one consequence is that companies like Exxon Mobil are now pushing the federal government to approve permits for more than 20 liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals. Big fossil fuel's goal is to sell U.S. natural gas overseas, where it can fetch a higher price. Is that really such a good idea?

Future generations will be incredulous that we ever debated the wisdom of increasing LNG exports. The permits that the Department of Energy is considering would export as much as 45 percent of current U.S. gas production. Once the terminals are built, trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated could make it difficult to impossible to limit how much gas we actually export. The result will be higher domestic prices as well a lot more drilling for natural gas -- primarily by fracking.  

So far, the Department of Energy has failed to consider the environmental and health consequences of such a radical increase in natural gas drilling. They really should, because both the potential risks and the known harms are enormous. Here are five environmental reasons why LNG exports are a very bad idea:

1. The current shale-gas rush has already had serious effects on our air quality. As the Department of Energy's own Shale Gas Subcommittee reported: "Significant air quality impacts from oil and gas operations in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Texas are well documented, and air quality issues are of increasing concern in the Marcellus region (in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York)."

Because of natural gas drilling, parts of rural Wyoming now have smog worse than that of downtown Los Angeles. This air pollution doesn't just spoil the view -- it's been linked to respiratory disease, heart failure, and premature death.

2. Increased fracking will endanger and further strain increasingly scarce water resources. A single fracking well can require up to 5 million gallons of water. And because that water is contaminated during the fracking process, most of it must be considered toxic waste and can never be used for human consumption again. Meanwhile, contamination of surface and groundwater sources from spills and leaks remains an ever-present risk.

3. Intense gas production can transform entire regions -- and not for the better. We're talking hundreds of thousands of new wells, along with a vast infrastructure of roads, pipelines, and support facilities. Pennsylvania's forests have already been decimated by fracking wells -- we could see that pattern repeated from New York to Monterey.

4. Higher natural gas prices could help revive the fortunes of the declining coal-fired power industry. At a time when we should be working to move as fast as possible beyond all fossil fuels, burning more coal is beyond crazy -- it's suicidal.

5. Which brings us to what may be the most important reason of all why we shouldn't ramp up gas production so we can export LNG: Increased use of any fossil fuel is the wrong move if we want to limit climate disruption. The International Energy Agency estimates that to have a shot at keeping global warming within a range that is potentially survivable, we need to keep two-thirds of our known oil, coal, and natural gas reserves in the ground.

LNG export terminals are the latest example of how the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy approach is misguided and fundamentally at odds with its stated priority of fighting climate change. How can we justify taking a huge additional percentage of U.S. fossil fuel reserves and selling them overseas for profit at the expense of countless future generations? Then again, people once made economic arguments for perpetuating the slave trade and other morally repugnant enterprises. They were profoundly wrong. Let's not give history a reason to say the same of us.

Take action: Tell President Obama that exporting liquefied natural gas to other countries is the wrong choice for our nation. 

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