Natural Gas As A Climate Fix Sparks Friction

Some local chapters of environmental groups find themselves battling their national leadership over issues like natural gas. The national groups see natural gas as a less-harmful alternative to coal. But local groups fear the damage that gas production could bring to their fresh water and landscapes.

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A lot of big energy companies, like ExxonMobil, are betting that natural gas will provide a lot more of the country's electricity in the future. It's become more affordable as more companies extract gas from enormous shale rock formations - from New York to Texas. And electricity from natural gas produces about half the global warming pollution that coal does.

Some national environmental groups have started pushing natural gas as a climate fix. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, it's sparking friction with some of their local members.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The Sierra Club's internal dispute over natural gas flared up recently, at Cornell University.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SHOGREN: During a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour of a plant that will help Cornell switch from coal to natural gas.

Unidentified Man: We're going to walk into the heating plant...

SHOGREN: Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles came all the way from Washington cheer Cornell on. He heads the group's fight against coal and he's gung-ho about natural gas as a remedy to climate change.

Mr. BRUCE NILLES (Sierra Club): Natural gas is going to play a critical role in our energy mix for the next two to three, if not four, decades.

SHOGREN: Nilles believes part of the solution lies right under Cornell University and much of western New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia - the giant Marcellus shale gas field.

Mr. NILLES: We are for development but it's got to be done right and allow us to get off of coal in the next two decades.

Ms. KATE BARTHOLOMEW (Chair, Sierra Club, New York Finger Lakes Region): That's all well and good, but also one of the Sierra Club's priorities is about clean water.

SHOGREN: Kate Bartholomew is the volunteer chair of Sierra Club's local chapter in New York's Finger Lakes region. She's a high school biology teacher, and she's worried that this area's fabulous lakes and drinking wells will be poisoned by chemical-laced water pumped under ground by drilling companies. She says she confronted Nilles about this during a breakfast before the tour.

Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: Bruce and I had a little bit of a tense moment.

SHOGREN: The Sierra Club's whole New York State chapter is fighting to keep Marcellus gas underground in direct opposition to the national group's policy. Bartholomew says the state activists were spurred into action when they saw pictures of shale gas developments elsewhere in the country.

Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: It was like these huge pimples all over the place with, you know, barely any space between the drill beds.

SHOGREN: Not what she wants to see in the Finger Lakes, a bucolic area with lots of forests, where she likes to hike and cross-country ski.

Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: I don't want to walk out and see five-acre drill pads all over my hillside. Yeah, and I don't want my water to be contaminated.

SHOGREN: Bartholomew isn't leaving the Sierra Club, but she's upset about its boosterism for natural gas. The group's executive director Carl Pope says she's got lots of company.

Mr. CARL POPE (Executive Director, Sierra Club): Well, it has caused friction and it's going to cause friction.

SHOGREN: Pope says the Sierra Club's leadership decided it had to come up with a practical prescription for how the country could slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. POPE: There are people who don't agree with the policy, because they think the Sierra Club's role should just be to oppose anything that has any environmental consequences. They don't think our role should be to say, okay, here's where we think we should get our energy.

SHOGREN: Pope says creating electricity from natural gas creates much less of the air pollution that makes people sick than coal does, and drilling for natural gas doesn't damage the land nearly as much as mountaintop coal mining has in Appalachia. It's destroyed peaks, forests and streams there. That's why the Sierra Club is promoting natural gas.

Mr. POPE: We see it as the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

SHOGREN: He's not surprised by the reaction of Sierra Club members who live above the Marcellus field.

Mr. POPE: What's happening with the new discoveries of natural gas is that parts of the country that historically didn't pay any environmental bill for energy production because they didn't produce energy are going to start paying a bigger share of the bill and people don't like that.

SHOGREN: Pope says that's understandable, especially when the development is happening in their backyards. As for Kate Bartholomew, she says she weeps for Appalachia, but her focus is her local environment. So, she'll do everything in her power to persuade Pope and the rest of the Sierra Club to help her keep energy development away from her beloved Finger Lakes.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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