The Power of a Plan

June 25, 2014

In his 19th-century curmudgeon's classic, The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a plan as "the best method of accomplishing an accidental result." When the EPA released its "Clean Power Plan" this month for reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the agency was clear about the results it expects by 2030: Cutting carbon pollution from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels, while also reducing other air pollutants (which by themselves cause thousands of premature deaths) by 25 percent.

Maybe you've heard that this plan is momentous -- a real game changer. Or maybe you've heard that, by itself, it's not nearly tough enough to get us where we want to be by 2030. Actually, both of those things are true. This plan really is a big deal and it's the payoff for years of hard work by dedicated activists. And, yes, it can and should be made even stronger -- and we're going to keep working to make that happen. Because the plan focuses on action at the state level, the Sierra Club is particularly well positioned to do that, too.

So, kudos to the EPA. But you know what? We've already seen some important results from this plan that -- if not quite "accidental" -- were by no means a sure thing, either.

Because President Obama is walking the walk on his 2009 Copenhagen pledge to reduce emissions, U.S. international credibility on climate action was boosted overnight. Most notably, we had the first indication ever from China that it was considering capping its own carbon emissions -- an announcement that came the day after the EPA rolled out its plan. An important climate summit is happening in Paris next year, and this plan puts the U.S. in a better position to help secure an agreement.

Here at home, the plan has left the fossil-fuel lobby (and the politicians who take their marching orders from the Koch brothers) flailing for a credible response. Many cited a discredited report from the Chamber of Commerce that wasn't even based on the EPA's actual plan. Apart from the Tea Party choir, their sermons fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the plan has drawn considerable support from non-fossil fuel industries and businesses, including some utilities. I think there are at least three good reasons for that. First, the EPA bent over backward to make its plan fair and flexible. Second, the reality of climate disruption has long since been accepted by businesses that can already see its effects on their bottom lines. Third, as the EPA's own analysis shows, these standards not only are a cost-effective response but also will generate new economic opportunities and thousands of jobs.

Most exciting of all has been the response of those who will be most affected by this new plan: the American people. Overwhelmingly, that response has been positive. Polls (including one a week ago from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News) have found two out of three Americans supporting the new standards. Best of all, in at least one poll, a majority stuck to that view whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or independents.

But, getting back to long-term results, do I think that by 2030 we will achieve the results the EPA is aiming for with this plan? No. I think we'll do far better. By 2030, clean, renewable energy will be playing a much bigger role in our economy than the EPA is guessing, and that transformation will multiply the already significant public health, economic, and climate benefits we're expecting from these carbon pollution reductions.

Should that be called an accidental outcome? If so, then it's a happy one.

You can submit an official comment on the EPA's new Clean Power Plan here.

Partners for the Future

June 06, 2014

I was honored to be invited to speak to the United Auto Workers in Detroit at their convention this week. Even though the Sierra Club and the UAW have been working together for years, some people don't know we're natural allies.

Here are some other things you might not know about the UAW:

As far back as 1949, the UAW led the call for building smaller cars that would cost less money and burn less fuel. It also led by being the first major union to support the civil rights movement. It provided the bail money to get Martin Luther King out of that Birmingham jail cell. And it provided more than half of the funding for the 1963 March on Washington.

The UAW was the largest contributor to the first Earth Day back in 1970, and its support went far beyond the merely financial. It was also a major supporter of the fight against apartheid -- when Nelson Mandela came to this country after gaining his freedom, one of the first places he went was to Detroit to thank the UAW.

More recently, the idea for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, which provided Tesla with a $465 million capital infusion at a critical time and enabled Ford to upgrade five plants, came not from the government but from the UAW.

Our shared history shows why the UAW and the Sierra Club have a lot in common. But in my speech to the members of the UAW, I also wanted to talk about why the broader labor and environmental movements are natural allies:

"We have shared values. Justice, of course. Fairness, absolutely. But also, the value of responsibility. The belief that we can and we should work together for the common good.

"And let's be honest: Not everybody shares these values. Not everyone believes in shouldering this common responsibility. They tell us that we can't afford to be fair. They try to tell us that we can't afford to do what's right for workers and for the environment. They tell us that there's no way we can meet the challenge of fighting climate change and creating jobs at the same time -- that acting responsibly will cost us jobs.

"Think about it. Why do they say these things? Because they're afraid. They're afraid of innovation that will create jobs, create more fairness and less economic inequality. They fear this kind of change, and they fear the future. And they want to hold back the future for as long as they possibly can."

By the way, that fear came through loud and clear in criticism by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the carbon safeguards that the EPA announced this week. Fortunately, it's been drowned out by the voices of millions of Americans who are excited to see such a significant step to address climate pollution, as we trade fossil fuels for a future that's powered by clean, renewable energy.

The automobile industry will help shape that future -- as we rethink, reengineer, and start building the vehicles that run on that clean energy. The advanced technology of those new cars will create still more jobs, even as we meet the new 54.5 mpg fuel-efficiency standards. Those are standards that the Sierra Club backed, of course, but they would not have happened without the support of the United Auto Workers.

So, yes, the future is already happening -- but that doesn't mean we can take it for granted. Because there is another, darker trend in this country.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has grown from a gap to a Grand Canyon. Big corporations -- including the biggest polluters on the planet -- have gained immense new power and influence. The richest one percent are grabbing virtually all of the economic rewards, while leaving the rest of us behind.

We can't let them steal our future, too. Our Blue Green Alliance, which unites 14 of our country's largest unions and environmental organizations, is determined not to let that happen. We are committed to reversing the unfair economic policies of the last 35 years that have eroded the rights of workers, driven manufacturing offshore, and lowered union representation. Together, we will spread the good word that investing in clean energy and clean technology generates more than three times as many jobs as does spending the same amount within the fossil fuel sectors.

Years of working on the transition to renewable energy with our partners in communities across the U.S. has taught us this: As we grow our clean energy economy, we cannot rely on the market alone to respect or create healthy communities. It is no consolation to families that have lost their sole means of livelihood or have suffered from years of underemployment to learn that some new jobs were created making solar panels in China, or even in the next state over.

That means we not only need strong and just pollution standards like the one announced this week, we also need policies that create good jobs for affected workers and communities. And we need corporations to treat their both workers and the environment with greater respect.

Only then can we build a future that works for everybody, with millions of good jobs, economic fairness, environmental justice, healthy communities, and a stable climate.


Score Another One for Wilderness

May 20, 2014

For more than a century, presidents have been using the Antiquities Act to save our national treasures, and President Obama's just-announced designation of the Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico shows exactly why this law is so indispensable.

At nearly 500,000 acres (making it by far the largest monument that President Obama has designated), Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks is packed with history, from archaeological sites to Billy the Kid's Outlaw Rock, to training areas for the Apollo space missions. The canyons and jagged peaks of the region's mountain ranges are both beautiful and unique.

My family and I experienced that beauty firsthand last November when we hiked the Dripping Springs Trail together with many of the folks who've been working for years to gain this protection.


It's estimated that the new monument will attract enough new outdoor recreation and tourism to give a $7.4 million boost to the local economy. No wonder the designation received strong local support across the board -- from business owners to elected officials to residents.

As Howard Dash, a member of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Action Team of the Rio Grande Chapter's Southern Group, told me: "In Las Cruces, our team has worked hard for the designation of the national monument. It was through the Sierra Club's support that we were able to focus that effort to make it a reality. Las Cruces will be a better place for it."

Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks is the eleventh national monument designated by President Obama under the Antiquities Act and, in every instance, his administration has bent over backward to get input from nearby communities and to select places that are rich in both cultural and natural heritage. In other words, the Antiquities Act is being used exactly as intended.

That fact, however, didn't keep the current U.S. House of Representatives (already notorious for being the most anti-conservation in decades) from attempting to snatch failure from the jaws of success. Earlier this year, in a close vote, the House passed a bill that would gut the Antiquities Act.

Obviously, anyone who loves wild places and wants to see them protected, knows that's a terrible idea. Many excellent candidates for national monument protection, such as Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, Arizona's Grand Canyon Watershed, and Utah's Greater Canyonlands, are still waiting. But the repercussions of losing the Antiquities Act would reverberate beyond the loss of new monuments. Remember when our national parks were closed because of the federal government shutdown? Fourteen of those national parks were reopened with funding from state governments because the states couldn't afford to lose the substantial revenue the parks generated for nearby communities. Of those 14 parks, nine were first protected as national monuments -- thanks to the Antiquities Act.

Without the Antiquities Act, it's impossible to say exactly how much poorer our national heritage would be, but there's no question it would be poorer, not just for us, but for every generation that follows. President Obama deserves a lot of credit for using the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act to protect special places like Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks, and for using it exactly the way it is supposed to be used.

Of course, anytime that Congress decides to use its own considerable authority to protect public lands, I'll be the first to stand and applaud. In the past five years, though, that's happened exactly once, which puts the tally at Obama 11, Congress 1. During this 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, wouldn't it be nice to see a closer score?


Keep Good Companies

May 13, 2014

My current column in Sierra magazine ("Money Talks, Carbon Walks"), describes how each of us can help build the fossil-free economy by exercising our influence as consumers and investors. Most of us will do that because we believe it's right but, as I wrote in Sierra: "If environmental concerns aren't reason enough to divest from the dirty energy sector, do it out of selfishness, because companies that depend on their fossil fuel reserves for future earnings are simply a bad investment these days."
That gets to a bigger point. Some companies look at the future and prepare not only to adapt but also to thrive. Others can't shake their ties to the past, whether that's digging up fossil fuels or manufacturing buggy whips. Guess which ones have proven to be better long-term investments?
The Koch brothers won't be happy to hear it, but economic success in the future will require a commitment to sustainability -- whether you're talking about clean energy, clean water, or fair labor practices. Companies that haven't figured that out by now are already falling behind, whether they know it or not
We don't have to wonder which companies "get it." A new report from Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership, examines the sustainability record of 613 U.S. companies. Together, these companies account for almost 80 percent of the total market capitalization of all public companies in the country.
As the report's title ("Gaining Ground") suggests, the overall trend is positive. Companies are paying more attention to sustainability issues than they were two years ago. Seven out of ten, for instance, have at least some kind of strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What tempers that good news, though, is that progress is not happening anywhere near fast enough. We're already feeling the effects of climate disruption. The deadline for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid a climate catastrophe is, as they say, nonnegotiable.
It's not too surprising that many of the companies that are furthest ahead of the pack on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy are from the high-tech sector. Some of these companies were prompted by direct advocacy by Greenpeace; others were motivated to respond to concerns of shareholders, and the values of their own employees. Each company knows well the importance of adapting to new paradigms. They also use a lot of energy. Increasingly, though, that energy is renewable.
Google has committed over $1 billion to renewable energy projects such as large-scale wind and rooftop solar. These projects will generate far more electricity than it uses for its own operations. Apple Computer recently announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers are powered by clean energy sources.
But the food and beverage sector is the one where the highest percentage of companies has set formal, time-bound emissions-reduction targets. The reason is obvious if you think about it: These companies can already see how climate disruption is affecting their operations. How will you sell coffee if there's no place to grow it? How will you manufacture soft drinks if you can't find the water? How will you serve guacamole if you can't get the avocados?

That's why Starbucks has set goals of reducing its energy consumption by 25 percent and of covering 100 percent of its electricity consumption with renewable energy by 2015. And just last week, Mars, Inc., the maker of Snickers and Uncle Ben's rice, announced that it will partner with Sumitomo Corporation of America on a wind farm in Texas that will generate more power than the company uses for all of its U.S. operations.
In the 21st century, it's already clear that investing in clean energy is essential for companies that want to flourish. But unlike any previous major economic shift, this time we don't have the luxury of letting things happen in their own good time. According to the International Energy Agency, our global clean energy investment needs to be about $36 trillion over the next 36 years if we want an 80 percent chance of limiting the climate warming to 3.6 degrees F.
Can we do it? We have to. And that means doing whatever we can to encourage not just our government (local and national) but the companies that we do business with (and that we invest in) to take action. When a company like GM, Nissan, or Tesla doubles down on electric cars, we need to support that decision, if we can, with our wallets.
The transition to a clean, renewable economy has already started. Our job now is to kick it into high gear.

Reject = Protect

April 24, 2014

On the day that President Obama finally rejects the Keystone XL pipeline, the connection between tar sands development and climate disruption should be only one of the reasons (although it's certainly reason enough). For someone like Obama, whose first real job was as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, the effect of the pipeline and its toxic payload on the people and communities in its path will surely also be a factor.

This week, the president will hear the voices of those people loud and clear, thanks to the Reject and Protect encampment and march on the National Mall. Reject and Protect is being led by  the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" -- a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the pipeline's route. I visited them this week and was both impressed by their determination and moved by how they placed this fight in the greater context of environmental injustice.

It's hard not to be inspired by people like Texas rancher Julia Trigg Crawford, who was there to lend support even though she has already lost her own battle to stop TransCanada from routing part of Keystone XL through her property: "Basically they came in and said a foreign corporation building a for-profit pipeline had more of a right to my land than I did."  

That was echoed by Ihanktonwan Oyate spiritual leader and elder Faith Spotted Eagle, who said, "We stand here as Mother Bears to defend our land, our farms, our ranches, our treaty territory. They are violating our treaty land and our treaty water."

The more time goes by, the more evidence we're seeing of just how toxic tar sands oil really is -- and what its effects would be on those unfortunate enough to live near a spill or a refinery. Of course, if a major spill were to happen on the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the disaster would be both unparalleled and irreversible for millions of Americans.

Already, the Obama administration has heard from more than 2,000,000 people who believe the pipeline would not be in our national interest -- an unprecedented number. Just as important, though, are the individual voices being heard this week -- the voices of Americans who see the health and welfare of their communities under attack. Many of these communities already bear an unfair share of the consequences from fossil fuel pollution. Can we really ask them to suffer even more for the sake of oil industry profits?

There's still time to join the Reject and Protect march in D.C. this Saturday. You can sign up here. Can't make it to the capital? Then join the thousands of people from the around the country who will be simultaneously posting messages of solidarity.


The One Thing to Remember on Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Note: This piece first appeared on Huffington Post as part of its Earth Day celebration.

People sometimes ask me these days why the Sierra Club spends so much time taking on the fossil fuel industries and encouraging wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Shouldn't we concentrate on saving wild places and, you know, taking more hikes?

To answer that, I like to bring up John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Although he died almost 100 years ago -- long before the first Earth Day -- Muir would have loved the idea of a day dedicated to celebrating (and protecting) our amazing planet. He is often remembered for opposing the destruction of wilderness, but Muir, first and foremost, was a celebrant of wilderness. Just pick up one of his books. His enthusiasm explodes off the page. His campaigns to protect the places he loved were fueled by this inexhaustible passion -- and by his conviction that experiencing the natural world could lift any human spirit as it had his own.

At the Sierra Club, we've never stopped believing in the importance of protecting those wild places, and we've spent more than 100 years continuing the mission John Muir started. I've seen wilderness work its healing power on the lives of everyone from returning veterans to city  kids who have never before seen the stars. I can guarantee you that, today, hundreds if not thousands of our 2.4 million members and supporters are not just hiking, they are scrambling up Rocky Mountain peaks, rafting through the Grand Canyon, trekking across the desert, and listening to Steller's jays argue in the boughs of giant sequoias.

But as the Club entered the 21st century, we realized that simply saving the places we loved wouldn't be enough. If we fail to address the threat of climate destruction, we could see much of the progress we have achieved -- John Muir's legacy -- undone.

So we did what John Muir did when he learned that his beloved Yosemite National Park was threatened: We organized. And, over the past decade, thanks to countless volunteers and the support of millions of Americans, we've succeeded in stopping many dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuel projects. We're proud of that work. But it's still not enough.

Here is where we can really learn from John Muir -- a man who loved wilderness so much that he took presidents camping and hiking to share his passion (and win their support). We cannot succeed if we define ourselves solely by the things that we're against. We must be just as effective, creative, and tenacious at identifying and establishing the positive solutions we do want to see. In other words, before we tell a policymaker what they should not do, we need to be sure we have a counterproposal for what they can do instead. I'll go even further. We need to show everyone in America what we can do instead.

That is what the Sierra Club is dedicated to doing today. We want to do for clean energy what John Muir did for wilderness 120 years ago. We want to show Americans -- show the entire world -- what clean, renewable energy can do for this planet we love so much.

There's no shortage of good news about renewable energy -- I see something exciting practically every day -- and each new development is another reason for optimism. That's what we should be shouting from the rooftops this Earth Day. Because if we don't get the message out there that we can turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy on a larger scale, then who are the optimists? Think about it. If the only news that people ever hear is that carbon emissions are rising at an alarming rate, or that the effects of climate destruction are visible sooner than we thought, or that our leaders don't seem able to summon the political will to respond, well, then why should anybody have hope? In that situation, the only optimists will be the denialists. If we don't articulate a vision for a prosperous society powered by clean energy, then the only "optimistic" perspective is to deny reality and bury one's head in the sand. And that's a dangerous thing to do when the seas are rising.

So here's what I want everyone to remember this Earth Day: The world is a wonderful place. In just 90 minutes, enough sunlight strikes this planet to provide our planet's entire energy needs for one year. The contiguous United States has enough potential wind energy to provide all of our nation's electricity -- nine times over. Renewable energy has become economically competitive faster than anyone imagined just a few years ago -- in many places it is already beating all fossil fuels and nuclear power on price alone. Our progress toward a prosperous society powered by 100 percent safe, secure, and sustainable energy is unstoppable. We will get there -- the only question is how soon. The answer? The sooner the better.

Got it? Now, make like Muir and spread the word!

Choose Wisely…

April 15, 2014

We all make choices, and some turn out better than others do. But the choices we end up regretting the most are usually the ones we make against our better judgment. Both individually and collectively, we humans seem uniquely capable of acting as our own worst enemy.

We also are capable of wonderful, positive, and inspiring actions. That makes it all the worse when the consequences of a single bad decision overshadow our best intentions. And that, I'm afraid, is what the Obama administration risks by recklessly expanding fossil fuel production on public lands.

The Climate Action Plan that President Obama announced last year is full of good ideas, and his administration has already done more to address carbon pollution than any other has. New fuel-economy standards will double the efficiency of our cars and trucks. The energy efficiency of our appliances and buildings will dramatically improve. Stimulus spending has helped boost clean, renewable energy, and the president has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards to curb both toxic emissions and carbon pollution from coal plants.

Unfortunately, a hard look at the numbers shows that all this progress could be undermined by one bad choice -- expanding fossil fuel production. Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the Sierra Club has calculated the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty-fuel development proposals in a new report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures. Such calculations send a clear message: To protect our climate, we must keep these dirty fuels in the ground.

Extracting and burning these coal, oil, gas, oil shale, and tar sands resources would release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and negate carbon-reducing actions. If we develop just one of these "climate disrupters" -- the Arctic Ocean, for example -- we'll release two-and-a-half times more pollution than we are saving through stronger fuel-economy standards.

Of course, that carbon pollution would be in addition to the already high toll from destructive mining, drilling, and fracking: polluted drinking water, destroyed wildlife habitat, and air that is dangerous to breathe. No matter where it happens, dirty fuel development leaves a trail of destruction. Throughout Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures, you'll find profiles of activist heroes around the country who are working to stop that destruction.

The world's best climate scientists have made it clear: To have even a two-thirds chance of keeping global temperature rise to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we cannot exceed more than 469 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide pollution, yet burning existing worldwide reserves oil, gas, and coal would release 2.8 trillion tons of new carbon dioxide. That's why the Obama administration (and future leaders) will need to complement policies that reduce fossil-fuel consumption (and promote clean energy) with similar measures that limit dirty fuel extraction on U.S. public lands. It would be a mistake to see that as self-denial. In fact, committing to a future powered by clean, renewable energy will mean a healthier America with cleaner air and water, pristine coasts, and protected natural areas. As fossil fuels leave the picture, ours will be a wealthier, more just, and more productive nation.

For all these reasons, we urge that President Obama reject these dirty fossil-fuel projects and choose instead to maintain our national momentum toward a 100 percent clean energy future. The data in Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures leaves no excuse for saying we didn't know better.

Finding Common Ground Outdoors

March 24, 2014

Someone once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Blogging about getting outdoors feels a bit like that. Part of me thinks that rather than writing 850 words about getting outdoors, I'd much rather be outdoors. And then part of me thinks that, rather than reading those 850 words, you might feel the same way!

But since we're here, together, united by this glowing screen, let me share a few thoughts about Sierra Club Outdoors -- which, every year, helps more than 250,000 people get their nature fix.

Getting outside has always been a big part of the Sierra Club, of course. The Club was started, after all, by a group of mostly city dwellers who wanted to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. Back in the 1890s, mind you, this was still a somewhat novel idea. Not so long before, most people still saw the great outdoors as something to escape from or stoically endure.

What those first Sierra Club members instinctively realized (with a little help from nature's greatest evangelist, John Muir) was that in "escaping" the outdoors, people were also cutting themselves off from a key nutrient -- like being deprived of an essential vitamin.

Today, of course, "nature deficit syndrome" is widely recognized for how it affects kids who grow up without access to outdoor experiences. We know that direct nature experiences shape the lives of young people, improve their self-esteem, raise their test scores, and help them lead healthier lives. That's why one volunteer-run SC Outdoors program is specifically aimed at helping thousands of urban youth -- kids who may have grown up 10 miles from the ocean without ever walking on a beach, for instance -- experience the outdoors.

The lack of nature doesn't affect only kids, though, and its benefits can help others, too.

Our Military Outdoors program, for instance, ensures that those who served our country, as well as their families, can enjoy the splendor of the land for which they've sacrificed. What Thoreau once called "the tonic of wildness" can do powerful things. At a minimum, outdoor experiences can provide military service members and their families with adventure, camaraderie, as sense of mission, or just a chance to relax and reconnect with one another.

Although we're proud of our programs that serve some of the people who stand to benefit the most from getting outdoors, the Sierra Club was founded on the premise that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience wildness, regardless of where they live or what their economic circumstances might be. We make that happen in two ways. One is by working to ensure that we don't focus only on iconic national parks or remote wilderness areas. Wonderful as those are, there's also a need for local places that individuals or families can easily visit for a picnic or an hour-long stroll. We call such places "nearby nature," and they are where many of our local outings happen.

The other way we make that happen is by having lots of outings in lots of places. Our volunteers lead more than 13,000 outings a year -- and they happen in every state and U.S. territory. Every one of these events -- whether it's a short day hike or a backpacking trip through the High Sierra -- happens because of a volunteer leader who loves the outdoors and wants to share that with other people.

As a result, no matter where you live, there's probably a Sierra Club outing happening near you soon. Find out right now by visiting the SC Outdoors page on our website.

OK, now that you've found your next outing, I want to leave you with just a couple of more thoughts before you lace up your boots and hit the trail: I'm convinced that the programs that make up SC Outdoors are more than just an important part of the Sierra Club's work -- they are an essential part. How many great conservation victories have been achieved without the hard work of ordinary folks who didn't want to see a place they loved destroyed? I can't think of a single one. The strongest passion for protection springs from love. No wonder throughout our history so many of our greatest leaders, from John Muir onward, have found their way to the Club through their love of the natural world.

It goes even deeper than that, though. Spending time outdoors can be personally healing, but it's also something that can bring people together, regardless of differing backgrounds, political beliefs, or experience. In nature, we have an opportunity to connect with people on a different level -- and to find common ground at a time when so many other forces are working to push us apart. Nature helps us restore our funds of hope, cooperation, and optimism -- and we can't have too much of any of those, whether we're fighting to save an Arctic wilderness or working to replace a dirty power plant with clean, renewable energy.

So come outdoors with us. You won't be sorry you did.

It's Not About the Pipe

March 11, 2014

Soon, President Obama will announce his decision on the permit for TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Since being proposed five years ago, this one pipeline has galvanized protests across the U.S. and gained a notoriety that no one could have predicted a couple of years ago. It's also brought renewed national attention to the urgency of reducing carbon pollution, as evidenced by the all-night session that the Senate Climate Action Task Force organized yesterday (the Sierra Club brought coffee for more than two-dozen senators who stayed up to talk about climate disruption).

I'll also be testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations  on whether the pipline is in the national interest this Thursday, March 13, at 11:15 A.M. ET. The hearing is scheduled to be webcast live -- look for details here.

Without a doubt, in this first-ever national debate over a pipeline, the arguments are getting heated. So maybe it's a good time to take a couple of steps back to remind ourselves why we care. Just why is this pipeline such a big deal?

That question has several answers, but they start with this: It's not about the pipe. It's about what the pipe would carry.

The Keystone XL's purpose would be to move Canadian tar sands oil through more than a thousand miles of American farms and ranches all the way to the Gulf, where much of it would be shipped to China and other countries. Tar sands oil is not normal crude oil. It's heavier and more toxic, with on average 11 times more sulfur, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead, as well as plenty of other carcinogens. When it spills in a waterway, it sinks. Just one tar sands oil spill in Michigan fouled more than 35 miles of river. After three and a half years and more than a billion dollars, that spill still has not been cleaned up.

Because tar sands oil is thicker and, indeed, more tar-like, it can't be transported like conventional oil. Pipelines pumping tar sands crude can run at over 1,000 pounds per square inch (compared with about 30 psi for your average car tire) and reach temperatures of over 100 degrees. This high pressure and the corrosive nature of tar sands oil combine to increase the likelihood of spills.

Keystone XL would also produce a significant increase in the production of petcoke, a filthy byproduct of tar sands production that is hazardous to communities and has its own major climate implications.

It's true that all fossil fuels come with risks, of course. But extreme fossil fuel sources, such as oil from the Arctic Sea or tar sands from Canada, come with extreme risks. Risks that are too often brushed aside -- right up until the inevitable.

But even if Canada's vast tar sands reserves could be extracted and transported without a single spill, generations to come would still pay a terrible price in climate disruption. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world's leading scientists have made it clear that we must leave at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Isn't it reasonable to assume that tar sands, some of the riskiest, most toxic and most carbon-intensive sources of oil in the world, should be among the first reserves that we leave alone?

The State Department's Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone XL, which came out earlier this year, has several problems, which isn't too surprising when you consider that a member of the American Petroleum Institute helped draft it. The report's most wrong-headed assertion, though, was that the tar sands will be fully developed regardless of whether Keystone is built. Frankly, if that were true, the oil industry would not be so anxious to see the pipeline approved. Just last month,TransCanada CEO Russ Girling told an audience that a pipeline cancellation would mean a lost opportunity for "decades and decades to come."

If the Keystone XL is canceled, does that mean Canada will immediately renounce all tar sands development? Of course not. But losing the Keystone battle would be an enormous setback for tar sands development, and the oil industry and its allies in government know it. Canada's natural resources minister put it bluntly: "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."  

And yet Canada cannot even get its own people to accept new tar sands pipelines within their borders. Two pipelines proposed to the west through British Columbia are stalled due to popular opposition. Two more pipelines going to the east are also heavily criticized. Thus, this proposal to use the United States as a shipping route -- which means that U.S. farmers and ranchers get all the risk, while oil companies will reap all the rewards.

The argument that Keystone XL is a pipeline that would benefit oil consumers in the U.S. ignores mountains of evidence that the product is intended for export. Keystone XL would deliver tar sands to refineries in the Gulf, which already export most of their refined product. In fact, 76 percent of Keystone XL's capacity is already committed to six oil-shipping companies that hope to access international markets.

Here in the U.S., President Obama has said he cannot consider the pipeline to be in our national interest if it would "significantly increase" emissions of greenhouse gases. Clearly, the Keystone XL fails this "climate test" because the tar sands fail it. The State Department's own report makes it clear that, compared with other crude oil sources, the tar sands oil from the Keystone pipeline would create up to an additional 27.4 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually. That's equivalent (says the report) to the yearly carbon pollution from 5,708,333 passenger vehicles or 1,368,631 homes. This extra pollution would happen because tar sands are not only dirtier and riskier than other types of crude oil, they also are significantly more carbon-intensive to extract. At a time when we should be doing everything possible to cut carbon emissions, why would we choose to rely on the one kind of oil that results in higher emissions than all others?

Really, it's not just Keystone XL that faces a climate test, but the president himself. With a single decision, he could undermine much of the substantial progress his administration has already made on curbing climate-disrupting carbon pollution and advancing clean energy solutions. Trying to fight carbon pollution while expanding development of the tar sands is like deciding to eat more healthfully and then signing up for a weekly shipment of Krispy Kremes.

Fortunately, we are hardly desperate for oil. Oil demand in the U.S. actually peaked in 2007 and has declined since then from about 22 million barrels per day (mpd) to less than 19. With the fuel-economy policies that are already in place (or coming very soon), we'll reduce our oil use to as low as 14 mbd. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the many risks of tar sands is that they're unnecessary.

One of the best ways to predict the future is to look at the infrastructure investments we're making today. If we want a future that commits us to 830,000 barrels of dirty oil every day for decades and decades, then we should let TransCanada build this pipeline. Or, we could invest in a future where clean energy creates more jobs, makes our country more competitive, and protects our air, water, and climate. Unless you're the one selling the tar sands, the choice should be obvious.

Bad Reputation

March 07, 2014

The toxic industrial spills in West Virginia and North Carolina over the past weeks have delivered the first hard lesson of 2014: Never take safe drinking water for granted. And yet the natural gas industry has been asking us to do exactly that for years now.

No more. This year, the myth that natural gas is a "cleaner" fossil fuel will be dispelled for good. Natural gas drilling not only can contaminate water supplies -- it's clear that it already has. What's not so clear is why state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting our water supply have been so slow to acknowledge and respond to that reality to the extent that fracking for gas remains exempt from parts of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. It's a problem that goes all the way to the top, as President Obama's insistence that natural gas should be viewed as a "bridge fuel" to a clean-energy future shows.

Late in December, the inspector general of the EPA released a report (at noon on Christmas Eve) that found the agency had been correct to issue an emergency order in 2010 after getting reports that natural gas fracking operations had caused methane contamination of water wells in Parker County, Texas. Texas fossil-fuel regulators and Range Resources (the company doing the fracking) pushed back, though, and the EPA ultimately backed down.

That was a mistake on the EPA's part, as has shown by multiple further tests that showed contamination. Results from the most recent tests, conducted last year by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University, are currently under peer review and will be released later this year. The professor did share the results with homeowners whose water was affected, though, who then shared them with the Associated Press (AP), which reported:

Jackson found higher levels of methane in some water wells -- sometimes five to 10 times higher -- than what Range Resources' tests showed. In some cases, the levels are five times higher than the 10 parts per million per liter set as a threshold limit by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jackson himself told the AP: "We're seeing high methane concentrations and that result alone indicates to me that EPA closing the case was premature."

What happened to homeowners in Texas would be disturbing even if it were an isolated case, but it's not. In January, the AP reported that contamination from oil and gas wells has been reported in at least four states where fracking is booming, and that contamination has been "confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen." In Pennsylvania alone, "more than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed over the past five years."

Across the U.S., utilities are preparing to replace old, polluting power plants that run on dirty fuels. The temptation, unfortunately, is to replace one dirty fuel (coal or oil) with another -- natural gas. We cannot afford to let that happen. Besides the obvious threat that fracking poses to our water, choosing to burn more natural gas inevitably means choosing to add more climate-polluting carbon to our atmosphere.

That's an especially poor choice because, thanks to lower costs, clean-energy alternatives have never been more competitive. When the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently asked a judge to evaluate competing energy proposals, he ruled that a plan based on solar arrays would be better for Minnesota's ratepayers than one based on natural gas. By "better," he didn't mean "cleaner" (although that would certainly be a bonus). He meant it would be a better deal for them financially.

If Minnesotans are better off with solar power, then why would sunny Southern California opt to replace the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station with dirty natural gas plants? Why would sunny Southwestern states or windy Midwestern states choose to shackle themselves to another fossil fuel for decades to come?

A growing movement is working to make sure that everyone knows exactly what a dirty and dangerous choice natural gas really is. But the other side of that coin is an even more important message. We have better choices -- choices that will deliver truly clean energy, that put more Americans to work, and that often will save money. Let's move beyond dirty fuels and build an economy powered by clean energy.

Let President Obama know he's got it wrong this time -- natural gas is dirty, dangerous, and anything but a clean energy solution.

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Michael Brune

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