Must-know: Environmentalists’ views on coal and natural gas


Dec. 4 2020, Updated 10:53 a.m. ET

Anti-coal sentiment

Generally, environmentalist groups are almost universally anti-coal. Their stance towards natural gas is more nuanced, as many groups acknowledge that natural gas burns more cleanly than coal but see dangers in the practice of hydraulic fracturing and also see increased natural gas use as a possible hurdle in the face of increasing renewable energy.

The Sierra Club has a strong anti-coal stance, demonstrated by its “Beyond Coal” campaign. The group has campaigned to shut down coal plants, replacing them with renewable energy. While the Sierra Club has historically been anti-coal, its relationship with natural gas has been more nuanced. From 2007 to 2010, the then-CEO of Chesapeake Energy Aubrey McClendon donated millions of dollars to the organization, as it advocated increased use of natural gas in lieu of coal. Chesapeake is one of the nation’s largest natural gas drillers. The Sierra Club has subsequently tried to distance itself from the natural gas industry and is engaged in a “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, which decries the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Sierra Club president Allison Chin commented on the practice, “No state has adequate protections in place. Even where there are rules, they are poorly monitored and enforced… If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.”

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The National Resources Defense Council, another environmentalist group, recently published an editorial piece titled “Chicken Littles of the Coal Industry Come Home to Roost,” lambasting the coal industry’s opposition to the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency’s) recent announcement of proposed emissions limits. The author, Dan Lashof, writes, “To hear the coal industry tell it, EPA’s plan to establish sensible limits on carbon pollution from future power plants—due out at the end of next week—is tantamount to a ban on the lifeblood of America.” But he counters, “In reality, we have an obligation to protect our children and future generations from climate change, which is already imposing huge costs on our country in blood and treasure and putting our children’s future at growing risk. Part of the solution is to set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our country’s single greatest source of the pollution that’s driving climate chaos.”

With regards to natural gas, a New York Times article (dated January 9, 2012) reported that environmentalist groups such as the NRDC had seen their positions evolve from an “enthusiastic embrace of gas to a much more measured one that still sees it as an essential part of the available energy mix.” The article quotes Kate Sinding, a representative of the NRDC, as saying, “The N.R.D.C.’s position has evolved — in New York and more broadly as well. So we’re very concerned not only with having the best regulations in place, but with the extent to which drilling is going to be allowed to happen at all in the state. But we haven’t called for a ban because we continue to believe that, in all likelihood, some amount of drilling is going to happen, and it’s important to be present at the table so we have regulations that ensure that whatever is done will be done as safely as possible.”


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