PhotoEnvironmental organizations portray themselves as being single-minded in their quest to defend the natural environment against harm from human development, but the reality is often far more complex, as recent disclosures about the Sierra Club make clear.

Critics -- and many club members -- are fuming over the disclosure that the Sierra Club took more than $26 million from natural-gas giant Chesapeake Energy Corp. to help fund its campaign against coal-fired power plants at the same time that the Sierra Club was lining up to support large-scale solar power developments that endanger fragile desert ecosystems.

The gas-funding disclosure comes as environmentalists are turning their attention to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural-gas production method that Chesapeake and other gas producers are using to fuel the country's sudden hunger for gas.

The funding deal was disclosed last week by Time magazine. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune then came forward to say that he had learned of the funding shortly after he took the job in 2010 and started working to end it.

"Turn away millions?" 

"Have you ever had to turn away millions of dollars? It sounds crazy, but here's why the Sierra Club chose to do exactly that," said Brune in an artfully-crafted blog posting, not explaining until a subsequent paragraph that Brune "turned away millions" only after the $26 million had already been received. 

Brune said nothing in his blog about why he didn't return the $26 million the club had already received.  Nor did he explain why he kept quiet about the deal he supposedly was working so hard to end. Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and other pro-coal organizations are stoking their public relations furnaces.

“They’ve cynically put people at risk for years to come with this campaign, and made themselves little more than tools of an energy industry competitor in the bargain," said UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts. "Let’s get real here: Just like any business, the gas companies are about selling gas, period. And they will gladly funnel cash to any organization that will help them do it."

Roberts said the disclosure destroys the Sierra Club's reputation as an independent environmental protection advoce.

“The Sierra Club used secret gas industry funding to actively work to suppress the building of hundreds of next-generation coal-fired power plants across the country, plants which would significantly reduce emissions of mercury and other harmful substances."

Solar plants

A giant "power tower" sits amid a near-infinity of mirrors in the Mojave Desert.

Coal industry payoffs aren't the only controversy facing the Sierra Club. In California and the Southwest, questions are being raised about massive solar power plants being built in desert areas, many with the approval of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations whose own members decry the harm the huge solar installations will inflict on animal and plant life.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that 21 million acres of public land is being used for solar plants in the American West and that conservation organizations have signed off on many of the projects in confidential documents even though many of the environmental protection measures promised by the plant developers are "complete nonsense," in the words of Larry LaPre, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist. 

"What troubles me is that the public has bought the whole solar expansion hook, line and sinker because it's 'renewable,'" said former Mojave National Preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm, according to the Times

Not only the Sierra Club but also the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Resources Defense Council have been largely mute on the subject, trading their usual public protests for a role in planning the projects.  In some cases, the groups' national headquarters have ignored protests from local chapters.

The Times said the Sierra Club sent out a 42-page directive telling local chapters that the organization's national policy goals supersede local groups' objections.  

In an odd twist, federal agencies have raised more objections to the solar projects than environmental organizations. Even the Defense Department has expressed concerns about the glare from huge arrays of mirrors and the danger posed by 400-foot-high "power towers" in areas where the military conducts low-flying training missions.

Desert tortoise (USGS photo)

Desert vegetation that takes 100 years or more to grow to maturity is being trimmed or removed to make room for the giant mirrors and tortoises are being relocated to areas where they may or may not survive.  Eagles and other giant predatory birds will be at risk of being burned by the mirrors.

Google and other investors in the huge projects are receiving tax credits and other incentives that greatly reduce their financial risk, while leaving taxpayers on the hook if the projects fail. 

In his soliloquy on the Sierra Club's $26 million windfall, Michael Brune repeats the mantra that is used to justify ripping up the fragile desert ecosystem by claiming it is a "clean" process: "Ultimately, the only safe, smart, and responsible way to address our nation's energy needs is to look beyond coal, oil, and gas, and focus on clean, efficient energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal."

But Jeffrey Lovich, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, says no one knows what  effect the giant solar projects will have on desert wildlife: "This is an experiment on a grand scale. ... Science is racing to catch up," he told the Times.

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