Environmental groups whistling past the graveyard?

Original Reporting | By Heather RogersSamantha Cook |

No­v. 1, 2012 — Environmental groups have long warned that America’s ravenous consumption of fossil fuels is not sustainable as a matter of public health or economic health — either on a national or planetary level. But on the heels of a boom in domestic natural gas production — most of it the result of the adoption of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — their opponents are in the ascendency. The conservation and convert-to-clean-fuels messages of the environmentalists are increasingly derided as out of touch, unrealistic, and harmful to the economy.

Former Governor Mitt Romney wants ever more drilling for fossil fuels in ever more places; at the same time, President Obama embraces an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which includes fossil fuels, and celebrates the United States as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

Are environmental groups facing up to the new challenges? Developing messages and strategies that resonate with more voters and more public officials? Building broader and deeper coalitions? Demanding that politicians who nominally agree with them go on the offensive?

Remapping Debate spoke with several environmental organizations and discovered that many were not.


In denial, or merely providing a positive spin?

Despite the anti-environmentalist shift in the political and media rhetoric concerning fossil fuels, three well-established environmental organizations painted a rosy picture about the prospects for green energy in the U.S., insisting that renewables continue to make great strides.

Cathy Duvall, national political and public advocacy director for the Sierra Club, said the shift in rhetoric does not signal that renewables are in trouble, but that fossil fuels are on the defensive. “We have made huge progress over the last four years, and what’s really clear to me is the industry is fighting back tooth and nail,” she said.

Further, she said that the recent flood of pro-fossil fuel messages demonstrates that there’s a “good, vibrant conversation about clean energy in the election.”

Are environmental groups facing up to the new challenges? Developing messages and strategies that resonate with more voters and more public officials? Demanding that politicians who nominally agree with them go on the offensive?

Remapping Debate asked Duvall whether the surge of positive rhetoric on fossil fuels actually constituted a discussion about renewable energy and the environment. “Absolutely,” she replied. “More than half the political ads being run on television [during the current presidential campaign] — that would be hundreds of millions of dollars — are talking about energy.” When Remapping Debate pointed out that the vast majority of these ads were in favor of fossil fuels, Duvall was undeterred. “Outside of health care, this is the most talked about issue in this election,” she said.

Similarly, Phillip Radford, executive director of Greenpeace U.S.A., thought that the shift in rhetoric had positive implications. “In some cases it’s like a last gasp of these really ancient industries, especially coal. [They’re] working to change their image when really the market and the future are not on their side,” he said.

Remapping Debate pointed out that in recent years domestic production of fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas, has increased (at a faster rate, in fact, than renewables). Radford said that while this is true, the fossil fuels industry is nevertheless in decline. “It’s just a matter of time before battery technology and electric cars or plug-in hybrids really start to replace the need for oil,” he stated.

David Goldston, a senior advisor at the NRDC Action Fund, of which the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a parent organization, acknowledged that “the ‘all-of-the-above’ language has developed more” in President Obama’s statements. “But if you look at the actual positions, I think that hasn’t been a big shift for the administration, and they haven’t backed away at all from their commitment to clean energy.”

Does the 4-year increase in renewable energy’s share of all energy consumed from 7 to 9 percent constitute significant growth?  “Good Lord, yes,” said Cai Steger of NRDC.

Remapping Debate asked Goldston what he made of the fact that drilling for oil and gas has increased during the Obama Administration, and that the President has supported Shell’s opening up of new offshore platforms in the Arctic. “While [the President’s] policies are not in lockstep with what we would want,” Goldston said, “there’s a real commitment to cleaner energy.” Goldston referred to President Obama’s recent increase in fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025. “Look no further than the standards to see the proof of it,” he said.

When asked whether higher fuel efficiency represented only a very small part of the steps NRDC believes are necessary, Goldston agreed that these standards alone wouldn’t solve climate change.

Most of the groups Remapping Debate talked to praised the increase in renewable energy (from a meager starting point) in recent years. Radford, too, asserted this as evidence of real change, arguing that there has been massive growth of solar and wind. “If you look at the trends of where dollars are flowing and what’s being installed,” he said, “I think fundamentally green energy’s winning.” Duvall concurred. “We’ve made huge strides in generation of clean energy,” she said. “We are so not where we were four years ago in this.”

Cai Steger, an energy policy analyst at NRDC, agreed, insisting that the rate of growth in renewables represents a historic transformation of the energy sector. But, in 2007, renewable energy made up 7 percent of all energy consumed; four years later it constituted just 9 percent. Remapping Debate asked Steger whether this marked significant growth. “Good Lord, yes,” he said.

Yet the burning of fossil fuels continues apace, a pattern that only worsens climate change. In light of that, Remapping Debate asked Steger if current renewable energy growth is actually sufficient. He insisted that it was, explaining that patience is needed. “The energy sector moves very slowly,” he said.

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