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What the Frack?: How the Sierra Club Took Millions From the Natural Gas Industry - and Why It Stopped

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Mainstream environmental groups have struggled to find the right line on shale natural gas and the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. Gas has a much smaller carbon footprint than coal-according to most scientists-and produces far fewer air pollutants. That was enough for many major green groups to give support to gas as a "bridge fuel" to a cleaner energy future-the next best domestic alternative to coal as an electricity source while alternatives like wind and solar scaled up. But for grassroots members of those groups-especially in parts of the country where fracking was already underway-the risk of local pollution wasn't worth the national and global climate benefits of greater gas consumption, especially as media and scientific attention on the potential threats to water supplies grew. It was a major challenge for environmental leaders: how to balance local concerns about traditional pollution with planet-sized worries over climate change, and how to work with corporate America without being seen as selling out.

Now the biggest and oldest environmental group in the U.S. finds itself caught on the horns of that dilemma. TIME has learned that between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 million in donations from the gas industry, mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy-one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the U.S. and a firm heavily involved in fracking-to help fund the Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Though the group ended its relationship with Chesapeake in 2010-and the Club says it turned its back on an additional $30 million in promised donations-the news raises concerns about influence industry may have had on the Sierra Club's independence and its support of natural gas in the past. It's also sure to anger ordinary members who've been uneasy about the Club's relationship with corporations. "The chapter groups and volunteers depend on the Club to have their back as they fight pollution from any industry, and we need to be unrestrained in our advocacy," Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director since 2010, told me. "The first rule of advocacy of is that you shouldn't take money from industries and companies you're trying to change."