The Sierra Club is one of the nation’s oldest and largest environmentalist organizations. The group has recently risen in prominence as a political force, backing efforts to curtail the use of all fossil fuel energy sources and proven zero-emissions technologies.
Despite having taken money from the natural gas industry to oppose coal use, Sierra Club is a leading opponent of natural gas exploration. The organization also opposes the construction of hydroelectric dams and nuclear power generating stations, the two largest sources of zero-emission power in the United States.
The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 in San Francisco, California. Its first president was John Muir, a Scottish-American preservationist. Muir had spent much of the past two and half decades exploring the Yosemite Valley. He had become an advocate of protecting the Yosemite and encouraging people to enjoy the valley.
The group started out with just 182 members and was instrumental in fighting a proposal to reduce the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. The organization won its first legislative victories with the creation of Glacier and Mount Rainier national parks.
In the 1900s, the club got involved in the controversy over the Hetch Hetchy Dam. The club was strongly opposed to the measure. The dam would provide San Francisco a new source of water. Many traditional allies of the group also supported the dam, as did the vast majority of San Francisco residents. In 1913, Congress approved the dam and handed the club its first legislative defeat. John Muir would die in 1914. In retaliation for the U.S. Forest Service’s support for the dam, the club supported the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
From then on until after the Second World War, the club served as more of social and recreational organization. It conducted outings and built trails and lodges in the Sierras. The New Deal brought many Democrats into the ranks of conservationists. The Civilian Conservation Corps, which was authorized as a part of the New Deal, worked on public lands and reforested large parts of the country. The group also largely remained a West Coast-based organization with no presence at all on the East Coast.
In 1950, the Sierra Club became a truly national organization. The first chapter outside California was formed. In 1952, it became a professional organization with the hiring of David Brower as executive director. The organization went to work lobbying against yet another dam, this time the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah which was announced in 1950. In 1955, the Sierra Club and other conservationists won a victory when the dam was removed from consideration.
Under David Brower, the group began moving away from just advocating for the conservation of land in the West. They fought against a couple of dams in the Grand Canyon that would’ve flooded it. Ironically, given the organization’s current activism on carbon emissions, Sierra Club advocated for coal fired power plants as an alternative to dams. Sierra Club members also opposed a nuclear power plant in the early 1960s in Bodega Bay, California. These campaigns were the beginning of the end for Brower. In early 1969, the Sierra Club accepted Brower’s resignation and he was replaced by Michael McCloskey.
Public Lands Activism
The club has consistently supported transferring Western lands to the Federal government from state governments or private ownership. It also supports expanding the amount of land protected by state and local governments. The club also opposes drilling and mining on public lands.
In 2016, the Sierra Club supported the creation of a national monument in Maine. The process of designating national monuments is a source of contention for rural lawmakers.
Opposition to Coal and Natural Gas
Its most active campaign is the “Beyond Coal” campaign. It consumes the largest single portion of the club’s money as of 2015 when the most recent annual report was released. The campaign first kicked off in 2010. So far, 251 coal fired power plants have been retired since the campaign. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his foundation have contributed $80 million towards the campaign.
Many of the coal fired power plants have been replaced by natural gas. However, the Sierra Club opposes both the use of and the production of natural gas, starting a campaign titled “Beyond Natural Gas.” They commissioned an anti-fracking documentary called “Fracking 101” which criticized the procedure.
They claim that fracking causes air and water pollution and damages the land. “Natural gas is just another dirty, dangerous fossil fuel that will divert us from the path to clean energy, sound economics, and healthy communities.” they claim on their website. However, the EPA claims that fracking is safe.
In the meantime, Sierra Club supports onerous rules that heavily regulate fracking and other methods of drilling for natural gas. They’re even opposed to the export of natural gas. However, in the past the Sierra Club has taken money from the natural gas industry in order to fight coal fired power plants.
Between 2007 and 2010, the Sierra Club took over $25 million from the natural gas industry. Most of the donations came from Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, which is involved in fracking. The money was used to help promote the “Beyond Coal” campaign.
Opposition to Oil Use
Sierra Club also wants to replace all uses of oil.
The group actively opposes almost all means of transporting oil. The Sierra Club opposed pipeline projects such as the Keystone pipeline and Dakota Access pipeline while also attempting to block moving crude oil via railroads. The club has opposed oil drilling on public lands.
The Sierra Club organizes lobbying efforts of local governments and state and Federal regulatory agencies to push their anti-oil agenda. They also use online petitions and form emails to target public officials.
Finally, they support higher fuel economy standards and more spending on things such as mass transit and electric vehicles.
Opposition to Proven Zero-Emission Power Sources
The club is even opposed to some zero-emissions energy sources. The club has been an opponent of most hydroelectric dams since its founding. The club is also opposed to nuclear power. They claim that nuclear power is both unsafe and a dirty form of energy. They call for the phase out of all nuclear power.
What the club supports is a transition to energy sources such as wind and solar. They believe that the clean energy economy will create lots of high paying jobs and mean a cleaner and brighter future. But scientists and even engineers from Google question whether or not it is possible to truly phase out conventional fuels.
Sierra Club came out against President Donald Trump’s temporary order barring travel to the United States of nationals from seven countries. It also threw its support behind the so-called “resistance” of left-wing groups that were opposing the Trump administration. “Everyone who values a just and free United States of America should continue to resist hateful actions like this one, which is why the Sierra Club proudly stands in solidarity with Muslims, people of color, immigrants, women, and all those threatened by Trump’s administration.” wrote Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune on his blog.
During the George W. Bush administration, the Sierra Club was a co-sponsor of pro-abortion events. It also joined a couple of anti-war coalitions that opposed the war in Iraq.
Michael Brune serves as the executive director of the Sierra Club. He formerly worked at the Rainforest Action Network. He maintains a blog on the site called “Coming Clean.”
The organization has an elected and all volunteer board of directors. Aaron Mair serves as the president while Robin Mann serves as the vice president. Susana Reyes serves as the secretary and Liz Walsh serves as treasurer.
Ties to Extremists
Although the Sierra Club itself has not embraced eco-terrorism, it has attracted some who have. In 2003, Paul Watson was elected to its board of directors. Watson is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a co-founder of Greenpeace. Watson is infamous for using steel-hulled ships and ramming and sinking whaling vessels.
The Sierra Club Foundation is the tax-exempt charitable arm that provides financial support for the Sierra Club. According to the 2015 annual report, the foundation provided $54,164,581 in grants. The foundation’s single largest grant was for the “Beyond Coal” campaign which received $26,351,587 in grants.
In 2015, the foundation raised $87,863,342. The foundation spent $63,424,535 in that year. Finally, the organization closed the year with $113,229,011 in assets, an increase from $89,083,509 the year before.
The foundation and club are heavily backed by numerous corporations. Among the donors to the Sierra Club Foundation in 2015 were Aveda, Craigslist Charitable Fund, REI, and Whole Foods Market. In addition, Adobe, Coca-Cola Company, Boeing, eBay, ExxonMobil, Gap, GE Foundation, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pfizer, Wells-Fargo, and Norfolk Southern matched donations.
The foundation is also heavily backed by other foundations, left-wing organizations, and even some government agencies. Among the donors to the foundation in 2015 were Bloomberg Philanthropies, the MacArthur Foundation, BlueGreen Alliance, the State of Montana, the Turner Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the Tides Foundation, TomKat Charitable Trust, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Pinkus Foundation.
In 2015, the Washington Times’s Drew Johnson wrote that some Sierra Club donors were possibly benefitting financially from their donations. Among those Johnson looked into were Nathaniel Simons, Roger Sant, and Michael Bloomberg. Johnson also found that executives from “green energy” companies such as Solar City, Solaria, and Sun Run also sat on Sierra Club’s board.
Activity in Recent Elections
Sierra Club Independent Action
Also see Sierra Club Independent Action (PAC)
Sierra Club Independent Action is the Sierra Club’s 527 political action committee affiliate.
In 2016, the PAC raised $1,264,729 and spent $836,462. It supported Hillary Clinton for president spending $24,799 on her behalf and donating $3,538 to her campaign. They also spent $42,791 against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
2016 General Election
The Sierra Club is a 501(c)(4) organization that can engage in independent political expenditures.
The Club spent the most in 2016 against New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte (R). They spent $386,552 in independent expenditures against her, which were by far the most they spent in any race. It also donated $9,496 to Ayotte’s opponent, then-Governor Maggie Hassan (D). Before he entered politics, Walser ran a land trust that purchased land for conservation.
Among the expenditures the club made in the election was a poll from Public Policy Polling. The club also contracted out voter contact to Winning Connections, a Washington D.C. based political consulting firm. The club also gave $7,500 to the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition, a PAC that is run by progressive U.S. House members.
2014 Midterm Election
In 2014, the Sierra Club was critical the effort by Democrats to retain the Senate and take control of the House of Representatives. In the 2014 election, the club did not support a single Republican candidate.
Its biggest target was U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). The club’s PAC spent $417,557 in independent expenditures trying to defeat her. The club also gave $4,403 to her Democratic opponent Bruce Braley. Ernst defeated Braley.
The club spent $100,624 on behalf of Alex Sink, who was a Democrat running for the House in a special election for Florida’s 13th congressional district. The club also gave her $2,444. Sink was defeated by Republican David Jolly.
The club spent $43,362 on behalf of Ed Markey, the Democrat running for Senate in the special election to the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat vacated by John Kerry in 2013. The club also gave him $4,368. He won.
2012 General Election
In 2012, the club supported the reelection of Democratic President Barack Obama.
The club’s biggest race was instead the U.S. Senate race in New Mexico. They spent $346,706 against New Mexico Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Heather Wilson. The club also donated $7,561 to her opponent, Martin Heinrich. Heinrich won that race.
In 2012, the club did not support a single Republican candidate for Federal office.