Updated: May 3, 2012 | 2:03 p.m. May 3, 2012 | 2:02 p.m.
AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune on the National Mall in June 2010
The rocky relationship between one of the world’s most influential environmental groups and the natural-gas industry is headed toward full-scale combat.
The Sierra Club is intensifying its natural-gas reform campaign and renaming it “Beyond Gas,” a spin-off of its decade-old “Beyond Coal” campaign seeking the phaseout of coal-fired power plants.
“As we push to retire coal plants, we’re going to work to make sure we’re not simultaneously switching to natural-gas infrastructure,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told National Journal in an interview on Wednesday. “And we’re going to be preventing new gas plants from being built wherever we can.”
The name for the campaign was actually decided about two weeks ago but hasn’t yet appeared prominently on the group’s website, Brune said. “Beyond Gas” represents a significant expansion of the group’s ongoing efforts against increased natural-gas production and will be integrated with campaigns against the other major fossil fuels, oil and coal.
The stronger anti-gas push is “in large part due to the emerging reality that the climate impact of gas is much worse than we thought, and the availability of renewables is much better than we thought,” Brune said.
That 33 states now have renewable-electricity standards shows that the country is closer to depending on clean energy sch as wind and solar power than most people think, he said. “It would be the height of irony if we decrease our reliance on coal and rather than jumping to clean energy, we replace one dirty fuel with another.”
To some longtime energy experts, the Sierra Club’s growing hostility toward natural gas isn’t surprising. "I have warned that based on concerns by some environmentalists, gas could become the coal of tomorrow," said Lisa Epifani, a partner at Van Ness Feldman who was previously an assistant secretary of Energy and counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
Vast reserves of shale natural gas discovered in recent years have promised the country decades of a domestic energy supply that many experts—along with President Obama—consider a cleaner fossil-fuel alternative to coal and oil. Natural gas burns with 50 percent fewer emissions than coal and is 20 to 30 percent cleaner than oil.
But the gas boom has also brought growing environmental concerns, particularly about hydraulic fracturing, the extraction process known as “fracking” that some fear is contaminating drinking-water supplies. The process also could be causing increased methane emissions that can intensify global warming.