Sierra Club leader lays out climate vision for the future

When Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, is asked about his top priorities for the next president, the idea of a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse gases doesn't immediately flow from his lips.

Instead, the leader of one of the nation's most influential environmental groups stresses the importance of sustainable buildings and the development of a green economy to pull the country out of its current financial mess.

"You can get two-thirds of what you need to do to solve global warming without a price on carbon," said Pope during a breakfast Monday in Washington, D.C., before heading off to meet with labor leaders.

For the other third, he said, you do need major legislation, or "cap and auction," as he terms it, to get a strong global framework at climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the fall of 2009. Even so, his remarks provide a hint of how difficult it may be to get a cap-and-trade system passed next year that is palatable to all energy players.

In Pope's view, the climate legislation sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) that died this summer was riddled with flaws, and a future scheme would need to include a 100 percent auction of carbon allowances, which would force companies to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases. His comments came on top of statements this week from the environmental groups Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council criticizing new draft legislation in the House as too weak in its emission cuts.

Some executives of utilities and other companies, on the other hand, want to loosen restrictions in any future bill and get free credits to continue spewing carbon dioxide. In a September interview, American Electric Power CEO Michael Morris, head of the one of the nation's largest utilities, vowed opposition to any bill with stricter cuts than were proposed in the one that stalled this year.

An incremental strategy or another giant climate bill?

"Anyone looking at this situation has to be open to the possibility of an incremental approach in Congress. People are talking about it," said Manik Roy, director of congressional affairs at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "I remain optimistic because economywide cap and trade still is the most cost-effective option."


Asked whether the current political stalemate and economic meltdown are leading the environmental movement to a piecemeal strategy on global warming in which multiple small measures would take the place of one behemoth bill, Pope answered, "We'll see. What the right tactical legislative strategy should be, I can't judge."

Meanwhile, Pope is steering the 106-year-old organization toward being proactive, rather than just "fighting the bad," he said. Toward that end, he's pushing for federal incentives that don't just assist low-income individuals with utility payments but help them buy efficient appliances. If there's a future bailout of state coffers because of an economic meltdown, he wants new money distributed to retrofit buildings so they burn half the energy they currently use. The group is pushing hard for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in Ohio with a new television spot this week saying the Illinois senator will invest $150 billion in clean energy.

And in a move raising some eyebrows in the environmental community, Pope also is spending a lot of time these days with T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman who wants to move natural gas from power plants to vehicles by ramping up the number of wind turbines on the electrical grid.

Fueling the Sierra Club's approach with natural gas

Calling natural gas "a bridge fuel," Pope appeared with the tycoon-turned-TV-commercial-commentator at an online rally after Tuesday's presidential debate and expressed hope that a million Sierra club members would join the 700,000-plus Pickens "army" of Web site registrants to get the next president to "do something big" about energy.

The Sierra Club also has agreed to co-produce television programming on CleanSkies.tv, the brainchild of natural gas businessman Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy.

Some other environmental groups have distanced themselves from Pickens and natural gas, warning the process of drilling for the fuel can disrupt natural landscapes and squeeze the water supply.

This month, NRDC released an issue paper stating that using wind-displaced natural gas to charge the batteries of plug-in hybrids is a better option than the Pickens idea of burning natural gas directly in the engines of vehicles. Plug-in hybrids fueled by natural gas-generated electricity are 40 percent more efficient than cars running off the fossil fuel, the group said.

Greenpeace deputy campaigns director Carroll Muffett said Wednesday that his organization is not pushing for natural gas and that there's a danger in a "transition fuel becoming a permanent fuel."

No to coal and no to civil disobedience

Pope claims you have to read the "fine print" of the Pickens plan and understand that the oilman's ideas really are about getting natural gas into trucks, which don't have a viable way to run off electricity. Pickens made a similar point this year to U.S. News and World Report, even though his advertisements saturating the airwaves feature small cars.

But Pope still spends much of his time talking about coal, which is responsible for about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club is stepping up efforts against mountaintop removal mining and is in position to "challenge every new permit" for the practice, he said.

The organization has been central in fighting new coal-fired power plants through legal challenges, citizen initiatives and a Web site featuring Google maps of every proposed coal generator in the United States.

Pope won't be practicing civil disobedience against new coal facilities with former vice president Al Gore, though. The Sierra Club is forbidden from doing so under its corporate structure, Pope said, but he is hoping to convince investors to keep their money away from the industry.

"I want guys who are motivated by greed to decide that the only greedy thing to do is to stop using carbon," he said. "We're not going to get there because people think I'm a wonderful guy."

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