Workers operate at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site April 23, 2010,… (Ralph Wilson/AP )
Just four years ago, shale gas king Aubrey K. McClendon told shareholders of Chesapeake Energy that “finally, we made some new friends this year.”
The chief executive sketched a vision of working hand in hand with “leading environmental organizations” on issues “where our interests might be aligned.” He said, “We believe this collaboration is unique in the industry and will benefit both Chesapeake and these environmental organizations for years to come.”
New friendships grew old, then cold. Environmental groups that once took money from McClendon — or considered doing so — to make a common cause against coal power, have stepped back as they weigh the environmental perils of extracting natural gas from shale, a business in which McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy is a leader.
The Sierra Club took $26.1 million in contributions from McClendon and Chesapeake-affiliated companies between 2007 and 2010, a fact that its executive director, Michael Brune, first disclosed to Time magazine earlier this month. Last year, Brune walked away from Chesapeake and an offer of an additional $30 million in donations.
“Identifying a common area of interest is very different from having our financial health dependent on a particular industry, or particular company,” he said in an interview.
The American Lung Association also has accepted an undisclosed amount from the company since 2009 for its “Fighting for Air” branding campaign. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), whose leaders McClendon wooed and who toured field operations, ultimately declined the funding he offered.
Brune decided that the donations represented a political liability when he took the Sierra Club’s helm in 2010. He said he realized that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was “going to be controversial, and I thought the most important thing was to strengthen our natural gas campaign.” He also faced complaints from local Sierra Club chapters in New York state and Pennsylvania.
It made sense that environmentalists viewed the natural gas industry as an ally when they were trying to forge a climate deal on Capitol Hill in 2009 and 2010, said Deborah Gordon, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s energy and climate program.
“When cap-and-trade was going through, they needed an alternative. . . . They saw it as the savior, and it’s anti-coal,” Gordon said. But now, she said, concerns about the chemicals used to tap shale gas have become more pressing as hydraulic fracturing activity has increased nationwide. “It’s just exploded,” she said.
Although McClendon may be the gas industry’s most generous donor to environmental causes, he is not the only one. Natural gas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens gave $453,250 to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2008 and 2009 through his nonprofit groups, to support its National Clean Energy Project events. At the time, Pickens was pressing lawmakers to adopt a bill to subsidize construction of natural gas filling stations. The legislation would have directly helped a company Pickens co-founded called Clean Energy Fuels, which describes itself as “the leading provider of natural gas for transportation.”
Several companies with natural gas interests, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, have donated to the D.C.-based Center for Clean Air Policy as part of its efforts to sponsor an ongoing dialogue about domestic climate policy. Exxon and Chevron have given $35,000 each for an annual membership in the dialogue, while smaller industry associations have donated less.
Chesapeake Energy spokesman Jim Gipson said that “over the years, Chesapeake has been proud to support a number of organizations that share our interest in clean air and agree[s] that America’s abundant supplies of clean natural gas represent the most affordable, available and scalable fuel to power a more prosperous and environmentally responsible future for our country.” He would not comment on the recent rift.
Some of the groups that have taken money from natural gas interests emphasized that they have continued to question aspects of the industry even as they’ve accepted contributions. CAP spokeswoman Andrea Purse noted that while the group did endorse the Nat Gas Act, modeled on Pickens’s call for a transition to natural-gas-powered vehicles, it had touted natural gas as a transition fuel in 2007. Furthermore, CAP senior fellow Joe Romm wrote several blog posts critical of Pickens.
Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser said that Pickens’s activities aren’t limited to one party or political wing. “He’s lent his voice to a number of organizations interested in broad public policies on OPEC oil dependence, national security and clean-air concerns,” Rosser said. “These include business, political and environmental entities on both sides of the political spectrum.”