Remember When Ban-Fracking Groups Touted the Climate Benefits of Natural Gas?

Anti-fracking groups like and the Sierra Club may now fly across the country to appear at “local” rallies in Ohio and Colorado shouting “keep it in the ground” and “ban-fracking now,” but it wasn’t that long ago that these same activists were fighting for more power plants to switch to natural gas because of the substantial climate benefits.

Perhaps the best example of this is the 2009 rally at the Capitol Power Plant when environmental groups from around the country descended on Washington, D.C. “demanding that the plant switch from coal to natural gas power.” Among the 100+ groups who joined the march include, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Earth Friends Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace, Ohio State Environmental Coalition, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

According to TIME magazine, anti-fossil fuel activist and former director of Bill McKibben was even willing to get himself arrested in efforts to get the power plant switched to natural gas.  As he said in the build up to the protest:

 “There are moments in a nation’s—and a planet’s—history when it may be necessary for some to break the law … We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested.”

“[I]t would be easy enough to fix. In fact, the facility can already burn some natural gas instead, and a modest retrofit would let it convert away from coal entirely. … It would even stimulate the local economy.”

Not long after that, in 2010, McKibben published his book “Eaarth” in which he claimed he supported natural gas:

“Sometimes the news is a little better … the last year has seen new discoveries of natural gas that could help wean us off dirtier coal.”

“And lately, at least in the United States, we’ve found some new supplies of natural gas, which is a good “bridge fuel” between dirty coal and clean sun.”

Of the groups that marched in the rally, the Sierra Club especially stands out for its spectacular about-face on natural gas. In 2009 the group joined the rally at the Capitol Power Plant and proclaimed,

“The Architect of the Capitol could easily — and instantly — convert the Plant back to ‘natural gas only’ power production.”

As one Wall Street Journal story explained in 2009,

“The national Sierra Club is one of natural gas’s biggest boosters.

Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, has traveled the country promoting natural gas’s environmental benefits, sometimes alongside Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the biggest U.S. gas companies by production.”

Of course only a few years later the group launched its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, which describes fracking as “dirty, dangerous, and run amok.” The Sierra Club is also the organization that hired Al Armendariz, the former Region 6 EPA Administrator who became famous for declaring that his “general philosophy” was to “crucify” oil and gas producers and “hit them as hard as you can.”

In other words, in 2009, Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club and many other groups were standing on the steps of the Capitol demanding that the power plant switch to clean-burning natural gas. Fast forward a few years to 2015 when Bill McKibben and his anti-fossil fuel coalition returned to the Capitol, this time to endorse U.S. Senator Bernie Sander’s “Keep-It-In-The-Ground” anti-fracking, anti-fossil fuel bill.

Now, natural gas fired power plants, once a cause “worth going to prison for” is among the laundry list of infrastructure which supports of hydraulic fracturing, and is therefore, according to McKibben, no longer acceptable.  As he recently explained:

“[N]o new fossil fuel infrastructure. None. The climate math is just too obvious.”

Significant emission reductions from Capitol Power Plant, thanks to natural gas

The climate math is just “too obvious”? Let’s take a look at the math for the Capitol Power Plant as just one example. In discussing the switch to using more natural gas, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) explained,

[T]he benefit of installing the cogeneration plant over the current practice of importing electricity from a coal-fired power plant could be equivalent to reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the operation of 15,000 vehicles each year.” (emphasis added)

In the four years since 93 percent of the Capitol Power Plant transitioned to natural gas, there has been an 80 percent reduction in criteria pollutants.  The AOC also notes that a 100 percent transition to natural gas would “limit NOx emissions by 78 percent” and would “have a much more dramatic impact on emissions regionally in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.

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As Stephen T. Ayers of the AOC recently pointed out, the move to natural gas is,

“The most cost-effective, energy-efficient and environmental-friendly solution to modernize the Capitol Power Plant.”

He further explained:

“The AOC is excited about the positive benefits of cogeneration at the CPP, as are other government organizations and public entities that recognize the benefits of this technology in providing clean, efficient and reliable energy. “

And this is just one example of what’s going on across the country. Even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has credited the fracking boom and the conversion of power plants to natural gas as “an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that natural gas use has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from power plants in the United States, bringing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to a 27-year low.

So what’s changed?

One would think that folks like Bill McKibben and groups like the Sierra Club would celebrate this dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to the fuel they once advocated for.

So what’s changed? Could it be that in 2009 the prevailing thought was that we didn’t have vast supplies of natural gas?

What this goes to show is that these groups know the science is clear – because they once touted it. Their about-face on natural gas has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with an anti-fossil fuel agenda.


  1. […] among its biggest cheerleaders, many environmentalists now vehemently oppose natural gas — and the hydraulic fracturing process […]

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