Carl Pope

Is the leader of the Sierra Club fighting hard enough against Bush's pillage and plunder policies?

Published April 29, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

On Thursday, after weeks of heated debate, the Senate passed a controversial energy bill. Roundly condemned by environmental groups, the bill made major concessions to nuclear and fossil fuel producers while abandoning nearly every attempt at conservation.

The Senate bill "takes us backwards," says Carl Pope, the former Peace Corps volunteer who has served as executive director of the Sierra Club since 1992. And when the Senate goes into conference with House members (who will bring along their even less environment-friendly bill) to draft a final version, the result could be still more disastrous for many environmental issues. As if to sprinkle more salt in environmental crusaders' wounds, on Friday the administration announced it was getting set to allow the coal mining industry to dump dirt from mountaintop mining into waterways and valleys.

These are dark days for the environmental movement. Since the Bush administration came to office, nearly every week brings a "what fresh hell is this?" feeling to eco circles. The oil, gas and nuke-friendly Bushies began their reign by pulling the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming and quickly went on to call for expanded oil drilling in public lands across the country, including Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. Following Sept. 11, the administration seized on national security anxieties to push harder for its energy-inefficient policies, putting conservationists on the defensive as Saddam sympathizers.

In the face of the Bush administration's pro-industry offensive, the leading environmental groups have seemed curiously quiet, with the exception of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has become a thorn in the White House's side over the secretive Bush-Cheney energy report. Some critics wonder if the major environmental organizations, the Sierra Club among them, have lost their fight.

Why, for example, was Sen. Trent Lott so successful in convincing many Americans, and fellow senators, that the proposal to raise Detroit's fuel efficiency standards was really just a ploy to force soccer moms to give up their SUVs? And why has the Bush team been able to frame the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil when, in fact, the estimated oil reserves in ANWR are roughly equivalent to only six months of U.S. supply, and wouldn't be available for another seven to 10 years?

Part of the problem, says Mark Dowie, author of "Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century," is that the Sierra Club and other groups have focused too much of their efforts on gaining access to government officials, even blatantly hostile ones like Vice President Cheney, who seem allergic to the concept of conservation. "Why," asks Dowie, "do they want to sit down with a guy who pukes every time he hears the word 'environment'?"

Access goes both ways, says Dowie. And, as a result of their naive emphasis on lobbying, environmental leaders have allowed themselves to be showcased by government officials who seek to appear sympathetic to environmental causes, while doing nothing to actually advance them.

To be fair, the last two weeks have seen a couple of important victories for the environmental movement. On April 18, the Senate voted to block oil drilling in the ANWR. The Alaska refuge is one of the United States' largest remaining pristine nature preserves, home to hundreds of species, including grizzly and polar bears, musk oxen and the calving grounds for 130,000 migrating caribou. It's also one of the few parts of Alaska's Coastal Plain that haven't already been opened up to oil exploration.

Then, on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the government need not pay landowners who have been issued temporary moratoriums on developing their land. The decision makes it easier for groups to carry out surveys of vulnerable areas -- like Lake Tahoe, the subject of the Supreme Court case -- while environmental impact studies are done.

And judging by Al Gore's recent rebirth as a fighting nature lover, environmental issues are likely to play a major role in the 2004 elections.

Are the mainline environmental leaders also finally getting ready to roar? Carl Pope says he is learning from the movement's recent missteps. Last month, for instance, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts withdrew a proposal to enforce Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFE), which would have forced automakers to increase gas efficiency to 36 miles per gallon by 2015, calling the proposal a "Pyrrhic effort." Enforcing CAFE standards would have saved about three times as much oil per year as could ever have been extracted in the same period from ANWR -- and maintained that savings long after ANWR would have tapped out.

Failing to rally public opinion around the McCain/Kerry proposal was "a mistake," Pope now concedes. The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations simply weren't prepared, he says, for the onslaught of spin that came out of the anti-conservation camp during the CAFE debates.

Along with injecting more vigor into the Sierra Club's political battles, Pope also has to contend with breakaway factions from within his own organization that have long criticized the club for not being aggressive enough, particularly on issues like commercial logging in public forests.

I reached Pope by phone in New Haven and again at the Sierra Club offices in San Francisco. We talked about how the club was squeezed out of the drafting of the energy bill, why he feels there's little hope of reforming the oilmen in the Bush administration, and what it would take for the country's most venerable membership-driven environmental organization to remove the gloves and start fighting harder.

What was your reaction to Thursday's approval of the Senate energy bill?

You can't make a silk purse out of two sows' ears. We have a House energy bill that will take us backwards very quickly and a Senate energy bill that will take us backwards somewhat more slowly. Neither is what the American people wanted, asked for or need. What we needed was a proposal that would reduce our dependence on oil, that would increase our reliance on renewable energy resources and that would protect and take care of America instead of turning over huge swaths of our country to irresponsible oil, gas and nuclear industries. So, we think the American people need to say to both their senators and their representatives, "Thanks but no thanks. We're not going to take this deal. And we'll continue our conversation with you at the ballot box."

Was the Sierra Club consulted in the drafting of the energy bill? Did you feel like you, or other environmental groups, had any influence in shaping it?

No, we were not consulted. They called us up -- they said, "Send us some stuff." [The administration staff members making the calls] had been told by [Bush officials], "If the stuff they send you doesn't agree with what you have, throw it away" -- and that's what they did.

What about the other environmental groups?

They got the same phone call that we got, saying "Give us what you've got in 24 hours." And we now know because of their own memos that the people in the administration who were -- quote unquote -- "consulting" with us didn't listen to anything that wasn't already decided

Did the Sierra Club complain? Mount a protest?

Not really. I mean we asked for meetings, but we didn't get them. We only started complaining after they had released the report and Vice President Cheney began going on national television and announcing that he had incorporated the Sierra Club's 12 planks in his plan.

And we sent him a letter that said, "Well, we don't think you incorporated our 12 planks, but if you think you did, then we should meet." And that was the one meeting we got after the plan came out. Quite a bizarre meeting.

Why was it bizarre?

Because we sat there and said, "We don't think that your plan does anything that our plan does. You have the same subject areas. You have a section called 'renewables,' but there's nothing in it." And they said, "Well, this isn't really our plan, this is a work in progress. We're going to change it." Which they never did of course.

Did the Sierra Club make any noise about having been misrepresented in that way?

We raised a ruckus. It was in the media all the time, on "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," and Ari Fleischer said it. You know, reporters weren't calling us up to ask us, so we'd hear about it the next day and we'd set the record straight. And finally we said that if they thought they had included 11 of our 12 energy planks, then they had Arthur Andersen doing their accounting. And that was embarrassing enough that they shut up and haven't said it since then.

It was such an implausible claim that I think the media said, "Well, no one's going to take that seriously, so let's not even bother rebutting it." And I'm not sure anyone did take it seriously. I'm not really sure any harm was done. I just thought it was extremely bizarre.

And then that same energy plan went unchanged to Congress?

It went to the House, where it was passed. The Senate then started with a different bill, presented by [Majority Leader] Tom Daschle, which was quite similar but not as bad as the administration plan. The Senate bill is not as bad as the House bill. And its biggest difference obviously is that it doesn't drill the Arctic.

But while the House bill gives all of its subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industry, the Senate bill gives only about half its subsidies to them. The House bill really weakens environmental standards governing all kinds of energy production; the Senate bill weakens only a few of them. The House bill has no renewables section; the Senate bill has about 5 percent renewables. So the Senate bill is definitely better than the House bill, but it doesn't take us forward either. It takes us backwards.

What are the basic tenets of the alternative bill the Sierra Club proposed?

We had 12 planks which are on our Web site. The 12 planks were divided into three groups. In the first case, "Renewable Energy," there was a portfolio which would require all public utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity with renewable energy resources by 2020. In the second, "Efficiency," we proposed fuel economy standards of 40 miles per gallon by 2015 for cars, trucks and SUVs. In the case of "Conventional Energy" production, the proposal was to build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48 to bring down the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas which are being produced in Prudhoe Bay and are simply being pumped into the ground. The oil industry makes more money pumping the gas into the ground than they would by building us a pipeline to bring us natural gas, which is of course much cleaner than oil.

The Senate may have ignored the Sierra Club's recommendations on energy policy, but it did vote to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. Were you surprised by that vote?

No, although I was pleased by the margin. We thought we'd get 50 or 51 and were delighted to get 54 but I wasn't surprised by the outcome.

I think it was clear once [senators in favor of drilling in the ANWR] did their desperate, cynical play [the week of April 18] with the proposed linkage to healthcare and pension plans for retired steelworkers, and once that didn't fly, that they were desperate. All of the undecided votes ended up going with us, I think in significant part because people felt that if they had nothing to say except "Let's threaten and intimidate a bunch of retired steelworkers by trying to take away their healthcare and pension," then they didn't really have a case.

Does the April 18 vote mean that we don't have to worry about drilling in ANWR anymore?

All of our victories, or many of them at least, are temporary. This won't be a permanent victory until we get legislation to establish the refuge as a wilderness, which we're a ways away from because we didn't have 60 votes either.

And [when the House and Senate go into conference to discuss the energy bill] there's always, I suppose, the risk that the House conferees will try to force the Arctic in some form into the conference report.

ANWR or no ANWR, the Bush administration is exploring plans to drill on public lands across the country, as well as in other parts of Alaska. How will the Sierra Club respond?

Well there are two things. Some of the things Bush wants to do he needs legislative authority for. And our goal there is to defeat the energy bill. To ensure that it never actually gets on his desk, which will not be easy because there are a lot of people in Congress who think it's their job to pass an energy bill even if it's an energy bill that takes us backwards.

There are also a number of things that Bush wants to do where he actually doesn't need legislative authority; or, he at least will argue that he has authority already under the law to do this. And in some cases he does. In other cases he will try to do things that are illegal and we will sue him and try to stop him.

How high a priority is the public relations aspect: getting Americans to demand that those areas be saved?

It's an enormous priority.

We need to focus on the specific places [the drilling] is happening. People are not and should not be upset at the intrinsic idea of drilling for oil. It's the kinds of places they are going to drill for oil.

So, you tell the story. You tell the story in press releases. You tell the story by releasing reports. You tell the story by taking reporters to the places.

How do you explain the fact that the Senate voted to save ANWR, but defeated a bill that would have placed higher fuel efficiency standards on automakers?

[The issue of fuel standards] is rather central to what happened on Sept. 11. It is central to our being held hostage to the oil nations in the Middle East, and yet most senators, all but 36 of them, treated that vote as a vote about the auto show [what cars people could buy] instead of a vote about what's good for the nation. There was a real lack of statesmanship on that.

I think there are three reasons that the Bush administration supports drilling instead of conservation. The first one, and probably the most important, is that they've been handsomely paid to oppose those things. The second is that, ideologically, I think that the vice president and the president honestly believe that conservation may be a personal virtue, but it's not what real men do. Real men don't build windmills. Real men build oil wells. So there's the Texas thing.

And the third thing is that anything that Clinton and Gore were for, they're against. They have adolescent oppositional disorder.

Also, the bill's supporters skewed the public's perception of the debate by arguing that "Americans don't want to be told what car to drive," as if increased fuel standards would make it illegal for Americans to drive SUVs. How were they allowed to get away with that?

We are perplexed. They spent a lot of money very shrewdly. They were very cynical. We obviously made mistakes. When you get beaten that badly, you have to admit that you made mistakes.

I think the thing that Americans didn't understand, and that we failed to communicate adequately, and the media failed to communicate adequately, was that the issue is not about whether you drive an SUV, it's about whether you have the choice of buying a good SUV. If you take a Ford Explorer that now gets 19 miles per gallon and you put a better engine, a better transmission and better tires on it, you would get 34 miles per gallon. People don't know that.

They think you don't want them driving a Ford Explorer, period.

Right, and that is what the auto industry spent $15 million telling them. And we did not do an adequate job of explaining to them: Here's how your Ford Explorer can get 34 miles per gallon.

How would you have gotten the word out?

Well, there are the usual techniques: You buy newspaper ads, and you use mail and you use e-mail, but I'll tell you what we're going to do.

We are putting together something we call the Freedom Package. The Freedom Package is a package of options which right now, General Motors or Ford or Chrysler or Toyota could offer as an option package on their vehicles. And the Freedom Package would take a Ford Explorer from 19 miles per gallon to 34 miles per gallon and would cost you $950 on an Explorer. That would be the price of the package. And you would save $4,000 over the life of the car. And we are going to have a campaign in which we campaign to people what the Freedom Package is. And why it's patriotic.

But shouldn't the onus be on the automakers to be producing energy-efficient cars?

Well, the only problem is that you can't get the public to demand that the automakers be responsible, unless the public first understands that the automakers are being irresponsible.

Then what we want is for people to go into the showroom and say "I want an SUV with a Freedom Package," and I want the salesman to look them in the eye and say, "Well, we don't offer the Freedom Package."

Does this mean you've given up on passing a measure that would force automakers to change -- in other words, top-down change, instead of from the consumers on up?

No, no, we'll pass the measure. The first step is to have it offered as an option. We want the Freedom Package to be standard equipment, and to get it to be standard equipment, everyone has to do it. There has to be a law. Just like the reason seat belts are standard equipment is because there was a law.

But seat belts didn't happen because people went in and paid extra to have seat belts put on their cars; they happened because the change was made from the top down, on the grounds of safety.

Well, the change was actually made because people knew that seat belts existed. And then some companies started offering them.

I mean, I can say to you, yes, the American automobile industry should be patriotic, responsible and should actually be interested in making cars in the U.S. 25 or 30 years from now. I can want all those things. I can make a case for them. But they're not true. The U.S. auto industry has actually no particular desire to make cars in the U.S. in 20 years. They're getting ready to go to Mexico. So they don't want to invest in any new technology in U.S. plants. Because they don't want to be in the U.S.

We did a poll in Michigan. Eighty-eight percent of autoworkers in Michigan wanted mandatory 40 mile per gallon fuel economy standards. They knew that if that didn't happen, Americans were going to stop buying badly designed, badly engineered SUVs and were going to start buying well-designed, well-engineered and fuel-efficient Japanese SUVs.

Yet we're always hearing that American labor opposes fuel standards.

The president of the UAW opposes fuel standards, but 88 percent of its members are in favor of them, because they want to preserve their jobs. [UAW president Steve Yokich's] thing is that the auto industry has said to him, if you sit down and do this, we'll make you have higher profits and we'll be able to give you a better contract next year, and you know, you're retiring this year ...

The short term is a real enemy of doing intelligent things. And one of the things that being in a national crisis ought to do is make us think long term. It's making average Americans think long term, but it's not making their leaders think long term. They're looking at next quarter's reports; they're looking at next year's election. We keep our leaders on a very short leash, and one of the problems with that is that our leaders do tend to think short term.

What about another major defeat: the EPA decision to allow mining companies to dump waste into rivers and lakes?

This is an outrageous example of how essentially the entire state of West Virginia is being turned over to coal companies to be turned into a mining dump. Strip mining was bad enough; this is much worse than strip mining. In the case of strip mining, this was done only when the coal was at the surface. You just took it out of the top, so you'd dig a hole in the ground. This is when coal is very deep and could and should be taken out with the mining, but that costs more and the mining companies are greedy. So what they do is they take the top of the mountain off, they dump it in the river next to it and then they take out the coal, and then they have all this toxic mining waste and toxic drainage that pours into the rivers downstream, polluting peoples' drinking water supplies, destroying fisheries, polluting the environment essentially for maybe a hundred years. This is a devastatingly destructive activity. They're turning West Virginia, the whole state, into a mining dump.

Why would the EPA have OK'd that?

Well, I guess you consult George Bush's campaign contribution list.

I suspect when we finally get all the documents that were submitted by people like Massey Energy and Peabody Coal to Vice President Cheney's task force, we'll find the reason.

Can you imagine a situation in which the Sierra Club would advocate the use of more radical action like civil disobedience, or anything like what EarthFirst! is doing?

We don't under our charter engage in or advocate anything that's illegal. We recognize nonviolent civil disobedience in the form that Julia Butterfly Hill [practiced it], who I think is a more effective example than Earth First! But you know we have tremendous amount of respect for what Julia Butterfly Hill did as an individual. Since we are a nonprofit corporation, and under our charter we are chartered only to do legal things, we can't engage in or advocate any kind of illegal activity.

The late David Brower, a former executive director of the Sierra Club, criticized the organization for not being radical, not aggressive enough. What was your reaction to that?

Well, I think David was perpetually striving to get people to do even more. He was never going to be satisfied. I'm sure it's true, we haven't done enough. But he never said we weren't radical enough. He said we weren't doing enough, and that we were spending too much time on internal process and on being democratic and not enough time in the work, on the ground. And I'm sure there's some truth in that, but you do the best you can.

We know that there are influential people, particularly in the Republican Party, who really believe that environmentalism is not a legitimate ideology, that we should not be worrying about protecting our planet. How do you deal with people like that, particularly under an administration that listens to them?

You try to make sure that people like that don't have too much influence. For example, James Watt, who was Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior, believed that in the next 20 or 30 years, the world was going to come to an end. If somebody believes that, then they aren't going to worry about something that isn't going to be a problem for another 80 years. If you really believe the earth is going to get hit by a meteor or destroyed in the next 20 years, then worrying about something like the rate of depletion of natural resources isn't high on your radar screen.

There aren't very many people like that. I mean, overwhelmingly, Americans have rejected that concept. And so what we have to make sure of is that the institutions in our society respond to the will of the American people. And the American people care about America and they understand that in order to care about America, they have to care for America.

So you do all the things you can do. You sue; you educate the public; you lobby. You spend money on the campaigns to try and make sure they have fewer supporters in Congress, in both the House and the Senate, in both the Republican and Democratic parties. It's not that there's one thing you do. You have to do a million things and then a million more things.

Have the big conservation groups been too civilized in trying to negotiate with anti-environmentalists in government?

I think there are certainly major environmental groups that haven't been very active. I think there are major environmental groups that have been ineffectively shrill. I think there have been environmental groups that have been wonderfully creative. I don't think we all fit into a basket.

What do you think about Gore's potential for 2004?

Well, we haven't begun to survey the field. It's too soon. I'm not sure whether Gore has begun to run and, frankly, we don't start thinking about these things for another year and a half. Senator Lieberman might run. Senator Kerry might run. Senator Edwards might run. They all sided up with us on the Arctic so we might be choosing among a group of friends.

Has Sept. 11 made it more difficult for environmental groups to get the message across?

What Sept. 11 did do was bring Americans together, to raise their expectations that government was actually going to protect them. And it also created a tremendous resurgence of a desire to do stuff. I mean, when we call our members now, twice as many of them turn up. Applications for the Peace Corps are up 50 percent. Volunteer agencies are flooded. Thirty percent more people are going to the national parks than a year ago. Sept. 11 created a sense of "I don't want to live just in my isolated world, I want to connect with my neighbors," which I think is a good thing.

It also created a sense that government matters, which was a very good thing since the reality is that government really does matter. What we haven't yet seen is whether those two things can come together. What we're working for is to try to combine the new sense of community and the new sense of appreciation for democracy, the new patriotism if you will, into a new burst of civic engagement. And I don't know yet if we're going to succeed. We're trying to.

By Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Amy Standen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------