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Not Just Politicians: Corporate Money Corrupts Nonprofits, Too

J. Mijin Cha

An excellent series here on PolicyShop details how corporate money corrupts our political system and erodes democracy, particularly in the wake of the Citizens United ruling. But, with recent news of the huge payout the Sierra Club received from the natural gas industry, it’s not just money in politics that corrupts: corporate money can also corrupt the advocacy community with an equally dangerous result.

Last week, the news broke that the gas industry gave the biggest and oldest environmental group, the Sierra Club, over $25 million between 2007 and 2010. In return, the Sierra Club used the money to help fund its Beyond Coal campaign, which currently only promotes renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal. In the past, however, then president, Carl Pope, accompanied the CEO of Chesapeake Energy in 2009 on trips promoting the benefits of natural gas over coal.

Not surprisingly, the Sierra Club is facing serious backlash from its partnership with Chesapeake Energy and their work against coal is now tainted.  And, herein lays the crux of the problem. All the great work the Sierra Club has done to rightly expose the economic and environmental danger of coal is now seen in a different light. It doesn’t make coal any less polluting, but the perception is that the Sierra Club was just shilling for the natural gas industry and was used as a pawn in their game against coal. Indeed, the United Mine Workers said as much in their press release.

And, in fact, there may be some truth to the idea that the Sierra Club was a shill for the industry. In 2010, representatives from National Sierra Club touted natural gas, especially that under the Marcellus Shale, as the key to the energy future. At the same time, the New York State chapter was fighting to protect the Marcellus Shale, in direct opposition to the National’s position. Even now, the natural gas reform webpage, and accompanying action, focus on implementing safeguards to protect the public from fracking. Except, many advocates, including the director of the fracking documentary Gasland, believe that there is no “safe” fracking and that there can be nothing short of an outright ban on fracking.

This controversy isn’t the first time the Sierra Club’s financial relationships have been questioned. The organization came under fire in 2008 for accepting money from Clorox to endorse the company’s line of “green” products. It didn’t help that the national board voted to remove the leadership of the Florida chapter and suspend the chapter for four years due to its criticism of the Clorox partnership.

But, this dynamic is not confined to the Sierra Club. A report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest documents just how corporate money co-opts advocacy organizations. Among the many examples, the report highlights how the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry changed their position on the role soft drinks play in term of children’s oral disease after it received $1 million from Coca-Cola, whose 12 oz can contains the equivalent of 10 sugar cubes. In a twisted sense, it’s the perfect marriage. Non-profits struggle for funding and corporations need the cover of organizations that appear to independently advocate for the public good.

At the end of last year, I wrote about how we could become truly energy independent by weaning ourselves off of big oil and gas corporations and their manipulative practices. The Sierra Club is the latest example of exactly why we need to stop corporate power. It’s time to set ourselves free.