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September 10, 2013
Dan Morain: Unbending Sierra Club risks losing relevancy

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(Sept. 10) Some legislators and veteran lobbyists and staffers conclude the Sierra Club is a caricature of itself and has lost relevancy inside the Capitol.

You'd think that the mother of landmark legislation to curb greenhouse gas and reduce tailpipe emissions might be entitled to a little respect from the most well-known environmentalist group of them all.

Sen. Fran Pavley is the gray-haired green lawmaker whose name sits atop AB 32, the 2006 bill that requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the 2002 bill that established tailpipe standards for this state and that Barack Obama ultimately adopted for the nation.

Now, Pavley is taking the lead with Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, on legislation to impose the toughest regulations anywhere in the nation on fracking, the technique for extracting petroleum from deep under the Earth's surface.

To no one's surprise, the oil industry is not pleased with the legislation, convinced that it would require drillers to jump through too many hoops. Senate Bill 4 also faces opposition from an unlikely source on the left, the Sierra Club.

The iconic organization has broken from most other environmentalist groups, contending that SB 4 would protect the likes of Halliburton, the oil services giants once led by Dick Cheney, and has the fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the industry-funded group that develops conservative legislative concepts.

The claims, which have little if any basis in reality, illustrate what some legislators and veteran lobbyists and staffers are concluding: The Sierra Club is a caricature of itself and has lost relevancy inside the Capitol.

Senate Bill 4, which faces a key Assembly vote as early as today, would force companies involved in fracking to publicly list ingredients that compose the concoctions used to fracture the earth. No other state requires that, a point many environmentalist organizations hail.

But the bill would not go the next step by requiring that companies disclose the exact formula, and that runs afoul of the Sierra Club, which wants the exact recipe - which would be a recipe for protracted litigation over violation of trade secrets.

In an email blasted to Sierra Club members, chief Sacramento lobbyist Kathryn Phillips invoked the National Security Agency's spying on our phone calls, a stretch.

"At a time when the federal government has decided it has the right to monitor phone calls and emails of ordinary citizens, our state government is working to prevent ordinary citizens from knowing the contents of oil industry pollution that could leach into groundwater. What would the Founding Fathers think?" the email says,

The Sierra Club missive went on to claim that the Democratic Legislature is doing the bidding of Halliburton, whose name is designed to get a rise from the left.

"Is it wise to trust regulators and fracking fluid makers like Halliburton to protect our interests? We don't think so," the email said, concluding: "The legislature shouldn't help the oil industry hide the facts from ordinary citizens."

Questions of purity aside, the Sierra Club engaged in some real politics last month. To help fight SB 4, the Sierra Club retained the lobbying firm headed by David Quintana, a Republican. His firm is known for representing Indian tribes, which, as it happens, need not comply with California's strict environmental regulations.

The Sierra Club's stand against the Pavley-Gray bill is not unique. The organization has broken with other environmentalist groups on several other measures, including ones by Pavley and Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, authorizing billions to be spent in the coming years on alternative energy.

The Sierra Club is aligned with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which views Perea's AB 8 and Pavley's SB 11 as allowing tax hikes.

The legislation does raise questions about pork barrel spending.

But that's not the focus of the Sierra Club's opposition. Rather, the club frets about an arcane provision to abolish a regulation related to hydrogen fueling stations for hydrogen vehicles that don't yet exist.

"If you're an all-or-nothing person or organization, that's a difficult place to be in politics," said Pavley, a 40-year member of the Sierra Club.

Phillips, who took over the Sierra Club's Sacramento operation two years ago after working for the more moderate Environmental Defense Fund, said the club is merely following the lead of its founder John Muir, famous for refusing to compromise on the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

The Sierra Club's stands in California are a reflection of a view within the environmental movement that the old guard compromised too much, to what end. Climate change is upon us, despite all the past efforts. There is another change afoot: Competition is intense for membership and donors' dollars. Hard stands can help with organizing. Rigidity might help the club with fundraising, though it may not advance the democratic process.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.

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