Skip to content

Breaking Up with the Sierra Club

March 30, 2012

 This letter written by Sandra Steingraber is re-posted from PRWatch.

In February, Time magazine broke the news that the Sierra Club, an old and respected environmental defender, had, for three years, accepted $25 million from Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas-drillers in the world. (In 2010, Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s new executive director, refused further donations from the company.) The story prompted Steingraber to write an open letter to the Club, posted below. We invite you to read the letter, which testifies to the confusion, fear, and outrage that’s pouring out of communities in gasland—but which is also, importantly, a bold call to courage.


No right way is easy….We must risk our lives to save them.

—John Muir, Sierra Club’s founder

Dear Sierra Club,

I’m through with you.

For years we had a great relationship based on mutual admiration. You gave a glowing review of my first book, Living Downstream — a review that appeared in the pages of Sierra magazine and hailed me as “the new Rachel Carson.” Since 1999 that phrase has linked us together in all the press materials that my publicist sends out. Your name appears with mine on the flaps of my book jackets, in the biography that introduces me at the speaker’s podium, and in the press release that announced, last fall, that I was one of the lucky recipients of a $100,000 Heinz Award for my research and writing on the environment.

I was proud to be affiliated with you. I hoped to live up to the moniker you bestowed upon me.

But more than a month has past since your executive director, Michael Brune, admitted in Time magazine that the Sierra Club had, between 2007 and 2010, clandestinely accepted $25 million from the fracking industry, with most of the donations coming from Chesapeake Energy. Corporate Crime Reporter was hot on the trail of the story when it broke in Time.

From the start, Brune’s declaration seemed less an acknowledgement of wrongdoing than an attempt to minister to a looming public relations problem. Would someone truly interested in atonement seek credit for choosing not to take additional millions of gas industry dollars (“Why the Sierra Club Turned Down $26 Million in Contributions from Natural Gas Interests”)?

Here, on top of the Marcellus Shale, along the border between Pennsylvania and New York — where we are surrounded by land leased to the gas industry; where we live in fear that our water will be ruined, our mortgages called in, our teenage children killed in fiery wrecks with 18-wheelers hauling toxic fracking waste on our rural, icy back roads; where we cash out our vacation days to board predawn buses to rallies and public hearings; where we fundraise, donate, testify, phone bank, lobby, submit public comments, sign up for trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience; where our children ask if we will be arrested, if we will have to move, if we will die, and what will happen to the bats, the honeybees, the black bears, the grapevines, the apple orchards, the cows’ milk; where we have learned all about casing failures, blow-outs, gas flares, clear-cuts, legal exemptions, the benzene content of production fluid, the radioactive content of drill cuttings; where people suddenly start sobbing in church and no one needs to ask why — where in the crosshairs of Chesapeake Energy, Michael Brune’s announcement was met with a kind of stunned confusion.

The Sierra Club had taken money, gobs of it, from an industry that we in the grassroots have been in the fight of our lives to oppose. The largest, most venerable environmental organization in the United States secretly aligned with the very company that seeks to occupy our land, turn it inside out, blow it apart, fill it with poison. All for the goal of extracting a powerful heat-trapping gas, methane, that plays a significant role in climate change.

Climate change: identified by The Lancet as the number-one global health problem of the 21st century. Children, according to the World Health Organization, are among its primary victims.

It was as if, on the eve of D-day, the anti-Fascist partisans had discovered that Churchill was actually in cahoots with the Axis forces.

So, I’ve had many weeks now to ponder the whole betrayal and watch for signs of redemption from Sierra Club’s national leadership. Would it be “coming clean” (to quote the title of the executive director’s recent book)?

Freed from the silence that money bought, would it now lend its voice in support of environmental groups in New York State that seek a statewide prohibition on fracking? Would it come to the aid of those in Pennsylvania calling for a halt to the devastation there?

Would it, at the very least, endorse the modest proposal of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, who recommend a national moratorium on fracking until human health impacts are researched?

And would Michael Brune humbly ask forgiveness from antifracking activist Lisa Wright, formerly on the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Finger Lakes chapter? As recently as last May, in response to a direct query from Wright, who had become suspicious, Brune wrote, “I do want to be clear about one thing: we do not receive any money from Aubrey McClendon, nor his company Chesapeake. For that matter, we do not receive any contributions from the natural gas industry. Hopefully this will alleviate some concerns.”

The answer to all of the above questions: No.

So, Sierra Club, call some other writer your new Rachel Carson. I’ll be erasing your endorsement from my website.

And take back these words, penned by your own fierce and uncorruptible founder, John Muir, that have hung for years by my writing desk:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

There is no peace in the mountains and hills over the Marcellus Shale. No glad tidings. The forests of Pennsylvania are filled with chainsaws, flares, drill pads, pipelines, condensers, generators, and the 24/7 roar of compressor stations. The wind that blows east from the gas fields carries toluene, benzene, and diesel exhaust. Sunshine turns it all into poisonous ozone. Storms send silt into trout streams from denuded hillsides and cause good people to lie awake at night, worried about overflowing impoundment pits full of neurotoxic chemicals and overturned frack trucks full of carcinogens.

Even now, plans are being laid to transport 88.2 million gallons of liquid propane and butane to caverns that lie beneath the idyllic New York lakeshore where my ten-year-old son was born. (“This transaction is yet another example of the successful execution on our plan to build an integrated natural gas storage and transportation hub in the Northeast,” says the company called Inergy.) When you tramp through the fields and forests where I live — 40 percent of the land in my county is leased to the gas industry — cares don’t drop off like autumn leaves. They accumulate like convoys of flowback fluid laced with arsenic, radium, and barium with no place, no place to go.

And, yes, they are fracking in Rachel Carson’s beloved Allegheny County, too.

The hard truth: National Sierra Club served as the political cover for the gas industry and for the politicians who take their money and do their bidding. It had a hand in setting in motion the wheels of environmental destruction and human suffering. It was complicit in bringing extreme fossil fuel extraction onshore, into our communities, farmlands, and forests, and in blowing up the bedrock of our nation. And I can’t get over it.

So, here are some parting words from the former new Rachel Carson.

The path to salvation lies in reparations — not in accepting praise for overcoming the urge to commit the same crime twice. So shutter your doors. Cash out your assets. Don a backpack and hike through the gaslands of America. Along the way, bear witness. Apologize. Offer compensation to the people who have no drinkable water and can’t sell their homes. Whose farm ponds bubble with methane. Whose kids have nosebleeds and mysterious rashes. Write big checks to the people who are putting their bodies on the line in the fight to ban fracking, and to the grassroots groups that are organizing them.

Finally, go to Washington and say what the Sierra Club should have said in 2007: Fracking is not a bridge to the future. It is a plank on which we walk blindfolded at the point of a sword. There is no right way to do it. And the pirates are not our friends.


Sandra Steingraber

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2012 4:51 pm

    I feel very compelled to respond to a post that Jeff Smith from GRIID posted just recently from Sandra Steingraber entitled “Breaking Up with the Sierra Club” in which Sandra outlines how she had a great relationship with the Sierra Club for many years but was abandoning it after a recent revelation the Sierra Club had accepted a $26 million donation from a natural gas company in 2007.

    As a national Club volunteer during that time period, I have an insider’s view of what happened. I sat not only on the Sierra Club National Board of Directors but also on the Clubs Executive Committee as the National Club’s Secretary (2001-2003), National Sierra Club Treasurer (2003-2006) and then from 2006-2007 as the Club’s Vice President of Conservation, the time period reportedly the Sierra Club received funds from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy.

    So when this news broke this past February, it was a big blow to me for several different reasons; first, even as a very active and engaged National Board member, I was NOT AWARE of this gift, second besides being on the National Board I was also the Sierra Clubs’ preceding National Treasurer & current Vice President of Conservation overseeing the conservation agenda of the Sierra Club and third, I also live close to Saugatuck Dunes where an ongoing litigated battle was being fought for over 10 years now, against who else but Aubrey McClendon… the natural gas tycoon, billionaire developer threatening an historic Landmark site and natural area in Michigan. Aubrey McClendon has been a very toxic and negative individual for me and many other land preservationists & environmentalists in the state.

    In my role as VP of Conservation I oversaw the first writing of the Club’s Energy Policy in 2006-07 and this policy has continued to evolve as we learn more – – natural gas was viewed as a transition fuel in the first round, in part because it burns cleaner than coal, but also because the full impact of hydraulic fracturing ‘fracking’ (a process of extracting natural gas that involving injection of millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals into underground rock) that was barely known let alone understood. But I think the most important thing here is that these funds from this large donation had NO INFLUENCE on Sierra Club policies at all. The policies of the Club go through a standard input process and I also went above and beyond, holding numerous open club-wide conference calls and an open website…taking in input from our volunteers and staff in the writing of the Club’s Energy Policy. The volunteers were calling the shots and setting the Club policy!

    I also hated to see this revelation unravel publicly and the aftermath of hearing & reading letters such as Sandra Steingrabers who were abruptly breaking up with the Sierra Club ….because of an action involving just a few individuals, who are no longer with the Sierra Club. I do want to also mention here that the Sierra Club did learn from this …by not only the board of directors cutting off these donations but also by re-writing our gift acceptance policy.

    After 38 years being entwined with the Sierra Club, its history, culture and major achievements defending and preserving the environment…I wholeheartedly will continue to give my support to the oldest and largest grassroots organization in the world and hope you will follow me in supporting the legacy that John Muir started 120 years ago. The Michigan Sierra Club has also been around for 45 years protecting Michigan’s environment for our families and our future. In early November of 2011 the Michigan Sierra Club along with other coalition partners set up the Protect Michigan Waters from Fracking Campaign holding Press conferences in 4 different cities…one being in my hometown Grand Rapids…that I personally attended. This campaign asked for a moratorium on ‘fracking’ in Michigan. The bottom line is that the volunteer leaders and staff, are a living example of what works here in Michigan and across the states in the Sierra Club.

    Since I termed off the National Sierra Club Board of Directors in 2007 I’ve been on staff with the Michigan Sierra Club first working on securing Energy legislation for Michigan, and currently I am the Chapters Development Director and also working to get Michigan beyond coal & fossil fuels to a clean energy future. Please feel free to contact me at OR 616-956-6646, if you have any additional questions or concerns not covered in my thoughts and reply to Sandra’s letter.


    18 michael Brune on Mar 24, 2012
    Sierra Club Executive Director Reply to the Orion post

    I recognize in Sandra Steingraber’s blog post one of the key qualities
    that motivated me to accept the position of Executive Director of the
    Sierra Club two years ago. Heartfelt passion for protecting the water,
    air, landscapes and communities we love is what drives the Sierra
    Club’s 1.4 million members and supporters. It is the organization’s
    strongest value and greatest asset. I can see why we have praised
    Steingraber’s work.

    Here’s what happened. Soon after accepting leadership of the Sierra
    Club, I learned that the Club had accepted $26 million from the
    natural gas industry to support the organization’s history-making
    fight to move our country beyond coal, an extremely dirty fuel source
    and significant contributor not only to climate disruption but to an
    array of public health problems, including childhood asthma and
    mercury poisoning. With a nationwide movement, we have blocked over
    165 new plants from being built and have pushed another 106 dirty
    plants into retirement. Like most of the environmental community,
    however, we had also become aware that the threats gas poses are much
    more severe than we originally thought. At my urging, the Club’s
    grassroots-elected board of directors ended all funding from the
    natural gas industry. We do not and will not accept such funding. We
    should never have taken this money.

    Looking forward, I invite Orion readers to pay close attention to what
    the Sierra Club is doing now, as our members and supporters work
    relentlessly to help create a clean energy future powered by wind,
    solar and other renewable energy sources while ending the nation’s
    dependence on all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

    Our chapters are aggressively fighting this rogue industry anywhere
    the drillers are attempting to move in. We have endorsed fracking
    moratoria in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and
    North Carolina. Sierra Club volunteers have lent their voices and
    protest signs to hearings in every fracking state from Texas to
    Colorado to West Virginia to California to New York. Sierra Club
    lobbyists and activists are working on the federal level to close the
    loopholes that the industry exploits, and to make sure safeguards are
    put in place where drilling is already taking place. Our attorneys are
    taking gas companies to task in the courts, are supporting local
    activists with technical resources on the ground—and have opened a new
    front in the battle over fracking by leading a national effort to
    challenge the export of liquefied natural gas that will increase
    demand for drilling. When fracking contaminated the wells in Dimock,
    Pennsylvania, we were there with others to supply clean drinking

    I’m eager to discuss with Orion editor in chief H. Emerson Blake the
    possibility of contributing a longer post or essay fully detailing the
    Sierra Club’s campaign to fight fracking and hold the natural gas
    industry fully accountable. In the meantime, I encourage Steingraber
    and readers to visit our natural gas campaign’s website and see for
    themselves that the Sierra Club is on their side.—Michael Brune,
    Executive Director, Sierra Club

  2. April 10, 2012 6:51 pm

    Jan, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to this article. However, I think Sandra Steingraber’s assessment is not only accurate, but indicative of many of the larger US-based environmental groups.

    While I can acknowledge some of the good work that the Sierra Club does my assessment of what the national organization has changed over the years as they have become too cosy with corporate America. Without debating this notion, the best sources on this matter has been Jeffrey St. Clair, one of the best eco-writers in recent years. Here is a link to one article that for me sums up my own position on the Sierra Club and other big green groups

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: