The Spill's Silver Lining?
Mainstream groups' determination to pass a climate bill has at times taken them down unlikely paths. NRDC Action Fund, for instance, launched TV ads this past spring targeting Democrats like Bill Nelson of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who opposed climate legislation sponsored by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman because they regarded its position on offshore drilling as too lenient. The ads featured footage of the burning BP oil rig, accompanied by a voiceover: "Congress won't pass a clean-energy climate plan to cut our addiction to dirty fuels because Congress is still addicted to big oil influence. It's time for politicians to break their addiction, so we can break ours."
And coastal state lawmakers haven't been the only ones unwilling to accept the White House's trade-off of increased offshore drilling in return for a climate bill. The CBD, Sierra Club and other members of the more aggressive wing of the environmental movement also declined to support the Kerry-Lieberman bill, balking at its offshore drilling provision, among other things.
The move not to endorse the bill was one of the first big decisions made by the Club after Brune took over as executive director from longtime leader Carl Pope. The Club also declined to sign on to the joint July 2 letter to Obama, opting instead to send a more sharply worded one of its own.
Disappointed that Obama hasn't been "twisting arms and cracking heads to get a strong climate bill," Brune says the Sierra Club's support for the president may not last forever. "I think Obama needs to be reminded that he shouldn't take the environmental community for granted," he warns. "Millions of young people helped put him in office, and they want what he promised: a shift to clean-energy solutions that will fight climate change and create good jobs in a green economy." Environmental insiders speculate that if the Club, which has a history of working with Democratic lawmakers, turned on them, it could set off a chain of defections among smaller groups increasingly disenchanted with the timidity of the president and the Democratic Congress.
The Sierra Club's new campaign, however, is by no means assured of success. Unlike the Beyond Coal fight, the anti-oil campaign must be waged on many different fields of battle—not just the hyper-local front of one very large coal power plant at a time. "Oil is a tricky one," says Rebecca Tarbotton, Rainforest Action Network's interim executive director. "Our dependence on oil is rooted in the actions of millions of individuals across the country, not just a few giant corporations. But the public has an unprecedented lack of trust at the moment for Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Banks," and, she adds, "the Sierra Club is a big stage."
But is it big enough? CBD's Suckling does not believe the Sierra Club can shut down the oil industry without a united environmental movement, including support from the Big Green groups—which, despite the simmering discontent at the grassroots, continue to serve as its official voice. Those groups, he says, "have so much power that if they are willing to endorse anything less" than the rapid end of the country's oil dependence, "the political system will gravitate toward them."
Other grassroots activists, like Utah monkey-wrencher Tim DeChristopher, Andy Mahler of the Heartwood environmental network and Native Forest Council president Tim Hermach, are skeptical that the country can be weaned off oil without a much wider societal shift. "What we are talking about is going to war with the richest and most powerful corporations in the world that have a stranglehold on our government," says DeChristopher, who made headlines in 2008 when he posed as a bidder at an auction for oil and gas leases on more than 110,000 acres of federal land, winning thirteen leases before officials caught on and halted the auction. "There would have to be a movement willing to raise more hell than the oil industry, and we don't have that right now," says DeChristopher, who has started a grassroots group aimed at building just such a civil rights–style climate movement as he awaits trial on the federal auction disruption charges. "If we won't do that," he says, "we're asking our politicians to show a higher level of courage and commitment than we have shown."
Brune says the Sierra Club is undaunted by the challenge. "We're not kidding ourselves. [This country has] been talking about getting off oil since Nixon, and it has not yet succeeded. But today we have certain advantages: we only have to try to convince six automakers and one decision-maker in the White House. There are choke points, where one important leader can make historic decisions."
"When you set a bold and ambitious goal, it inspires people to work with you," he says.