When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.

Warren Buffett’s coal problem

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

Last winter, I traveled to southeastern Montana (brr!) to report on a battle over a coal mine being proposed by Arch Coal, America’s second-biggest coal company, and a coal-carrying railroad that’s needed to transport the coal from the mine to coal-burning power plants, either in the U.S. or in Asia. The railroad, called the Tongue River Railroad, is owned by Arch Coal, by the BNSF Railway, which is a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and by the candy billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

It’s a fascinating story, for a bunch of reasons. The coal mine and the railroad are interdependent; both will be built, or neither will be. They need the approval of state and federal regulators. And opposing them are an unlikely coalition of Montana cattle ranchers, members of the northern Cheyenne tribe, a small Amish farming community that recently moved to to the state in search of peace and quiet, and some very determined environmental activists from the Northern Plains Resource Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club.

My story was as just published in the May/June issue of by Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, under the headline, Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem. Like the Sierra Club, I think this coal mine is a bad idea–a very bad idea–and that’s one reason why I wanted  to write the story. [click to continue...]

2012′s green business heroes

Bill McKibben does the math

Bill McKibben does the math

Some say, and with reason, that 2012 was the best year ever. Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity. Of course there’s plenty to worry about–the fiscal cliff, gun violence, chaos in Syria and the Congo–as always there will be. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the long arc of history bends towards a more just and sustainable world.

In the little corner of the world that occupies much of my attention–the places where business and sustainability intersect–it has not been a good year. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We’re burning more coal, oil and gas than ever. Policy is stuck, in the US and internationally. This will be the hottest year on record in the US, and still people don’t accept the science of climate change. Go figure.

That said, in this final blogpost of 2012,  I’d like to salute some people (again, mostly from the world of business and sustainability) who fought the good fight during the year  just past. Some are business people, others are politicians, activists and even journalists, but they are all doing what they can to bend the arc of history. They’re my green business heroes for 2012. [click to continue...]

Do the math: Bill McKibben takes on Big Oil

Most Americans own cars. Most cars run on gasoline.

Can we be persuaded to think of the oil industry as the enemy? What about the coal industry, which supplies more than a third of the electricity we use?

“Movements need enemies,” declares Bill McKibben, the author, activist and leader of grassroots group 350.org. So last week, with allies including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, McKibben and 350.org began a 20-city, month-long coast-to-coast tour called Do the Math that targets the fossil fuel industry. It’s designed to invigorate the climate movement by calling upon colleges, foundations and governments to sell their stock in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

The campaign is modeled after the 1980s South Africa divestment campaign, which helped pressure the government to enter negotiations that eventually led to the end of apartheid. To underscore that point, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu will make appearances, on video, during the tour.

It’s time to focus on the polluters, McKibben said last week by phone from Seattle, where the tour kicked off. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on our elected officials, and so little time focusing on the players behind them,” he said.

“The fossil fuel industry is now the tobacco industry,” he told me. “They are now a rogue force in our society.”

Not surprisingly, the oil companies aren’t happy about any of this. Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, told me that McKibben’s attacks on U.S. oil companies, if they lead to higher carbon taxes or caps, would raise energy prices and risk American jobs, while doing little or nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. “Demonizing an industry is not a good starting point for dealing with a big and complex issue like this one,” she said. [click to continue...]

Sierra Club’s Brune: We’re stopping coal

Michael Brune

“We are starting to create the ecological U-turn that David Brower talked about, decades ago. On coal, it’s dramatic. We’ve seen a halt to the coal rush.”

“Primarily because of regulations (from)  the Obama administration, we can now project a future where our oil consumption will decline.”

“It’s not sufficient to address the problem, but it’s a positive trend.”

So says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. [David Brower, who was made famous in John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, was one of his predecessors.] Others fret that the environmental movement is on the defensive these days. Mike, an optimistic, sees progress.

Indeed, Mike argues that the effort by Republicans in the House to roll back a slew of environmental regulations as a sign that the enviros are winning.

“Republicans in Congress and their corporate benefactors are worried about the threat to the status quo in the energy industry,” he says. “That’s the reason this is happening. We’re making progress.” [click to continue...]

Mike Bloomberg takes on coal

Sierra Club's Mike Brune, Rep. Jim Moran and Michael Bloomberg

In a gutsy move, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg today announced that his Bloomberg Philanthropies has pledged $50 million to the Sierra Club to fight coal plants.

He didn’t do it quietly, either. Bloomberg chartered a boat to take about 100 Sierra Club activists, friends, TV cameras and reporters out onto the Potomac River for a press conference in front of an Alexandria, Va., coal plant that environmentalist have been try shut, so far without success. Fittingly, he came to D.C. on a day when the heat was sweltering and authorities declared a “Code Orange,” an alert meaning that the air is too dirty for kids to play outside.

“The burning of coal does terrible harm to mothers, children and families across the country,” Bloomberg declared, calling coal a “self-inflicted public health risk.”

Bloomberg and Mike Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, set an ambitious goal for the group’s “Beyond Coal” campaign: They want to shut down about one-third of the nation’s coal plants and replace them with clean energy as quickly as possible.

“If we succeed, and I believe we will,” Bloomberg said, “we will save millions of lives and we will help millions of children avoid asthma and its debilitating effects.”

For those who care about climate change, air pollution and public health, this is the best news out of Washington, D.C., in some time. It comes in stark contrast to the goings-on on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are doing everything they can to tame the EPA. [click to continue...]

The Gulf disaster, and the future of coal

If you like the BP oil spill…

cleaning-oil-spill-2

you’re going to love carbon capture and storage.

Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2_Crop1

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is the technology that offers the best hope of generating electricity from coal in a way that doesn’t further heat up the planet. When people talk about “clean coal” – a phrase that deserves quotes because coal is never entirely clean — they’re often talking about CCS.

CCS technologies, which can be applied before or after the coal is burned, are designed to capture carbon dioxide, transport it to a secure location, typically deep under the ground, and then sequester it safely for a long, long time, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Get the connection? Just as the oil industry assures that they can safely drill for oil a mile under the ocean, the coal companies and utility industry are very confident that can bury CO2 deep under the ground, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Do you want to take them at their word?

I asked Mike Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club and a leading anti-coal activist, about BP and CCS. He replied by email:

The BP deep water oil disaster is an example of how seeking out new and riskier ways of feeding our addiction to fossil fuels leads to new and more catastrophic problems….If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that relying on unproven and complicated methods to sustain our dependence on oil and coal has disastrous consequences.

You may be surprised to learn that CCS isn’t favored just by the coal guys or the utilities. Some environmental groups like the technology, too. David Hawkins, the estimable head of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which strongly opposes conventional coal plants, says it’s essential that we figure out CCS. Here’s his very thoughtful argument on behalf of CCS, from NRDC’s Switchboard blog:

As a community, we have achieved great success in blocking new coal plants one by one but we need a comprehensive coal policy as well.  Showing CCS is an available tool helps us to convince policymakers that they should oppose construction of coal plants that do not capture their carbon.  Is such a policy as attractive to many in our community as a law that says no more coal plants, period? No.  But we need to ask ourselves — what are the realistic odds of getting Congress or any significant coal-using state to adopt a “no new coal, period” policy in the next handful of years?   I have fought the coal industry for 40 years and in my judgment the odds of a total ban on new coal plants are not large.

The Obama administration is also an enthusiastic supporter of CCS on a grand scale, in the form of a controversial, costly project known as Future Gen. Just a week ago, even as oil was spewing into the gulf, Obama’s DOE  announced that it would spend up to $612 million in recovery act money (to be matched by $368 million in private funding) to demonstrate large-scale CCS from industrial sources (not power plants, although the technology is similar).

One project will store CO2 in a “deep saline formation,” as part of a corn ethanol project. Two others will use the CO2 in “enhanced oil recovery” in the Gulf, believe it or not. Such well-connected companies as Archer Daniels Midland and GE are among the beneficiaries. From the DOE announcement:

·         Leucadia Energy, LLC (Lake Charles, LA)—Leucadia and Denbury Onshore LLC will capture and sequester 4.5 million tons of CO2 per year from a new methanol plant in Lake Charles, LA. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield, starting in April 2014. The project team includes Leucadia Energy, Denbury, General Electric, Haldor Topsoe, Black & Veatch, Turner Industries, and the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.  (DOE share: $260 million)

·         Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. (Port Arthur, TX)—Air Products will partner with Denbury Onshore LLC to capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from existing steam-methane reformers in Port Arthur, Texas, starting in November 2012. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield. The project team includes Air Products & Chemicals, Denbury Onshore LLC, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, and Valero Energy Corporation.  (DOE share: $253 million)

·         Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (Decatur, Ill.)—The project will capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from an existing ethanol plant in Illinois, starting in August 2012. The CO2 will be sequestered in the Mt. Simon Sandstone, a well-characterized saline reservoir located about one mile from the plant. The project team includes Archer Daniels Midland, Schlumberger Carbon Services, and the Illinois State Geological Survey. (DOE share: $99 million)

Unfortunately, these subsidies don’t appear to be linked to actual tons of carbon sequestered. They support demonstration projects. Still to be determined are such issues as who “owns” the store CO2, who will be responsible, financially, if it escapes, etc.  To be fair, CO2 has been stored underground for years as part of enhanced oil recovery, but we’ve also been doing deepwater drilling for a long time.

Interestingly, the connection between the BP disaster and CCS was suggested to me,  not by an environmentalist, but by a very sophisticated investor in clean technology. This investor—who asked not to be identified, because he works closely with big companies like GE and with the Obama team—has placed bets on solar power, energy storage and efficiency, so he’s no fan of coal, but he’s also driven by a personal passion around the climate crisis.

Since I can’t quote the investor, I’ll give the last work to the Sierra Club’s Mike Brune:

Relying on carbon capture and storage is like a heroin addict finding a new vein to shoot. It’s not a solution, it’s simply a new way to perpetuate the problem. The Sierra Club has no objection to using private, corporate resources to fund CCS research to see if CCS can ever be done safely, cheaply, and without requiring massive amounts of energy. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be seeking out more expensive and dangerous ways to feed our dependence on oil or coal. Instead, we should be putting our innovation and resources to work in the service of clean energy that will create jobs and keep our coasts, wild places, and communities healthy and intact.

Photo links/credits: duck (Audubon Society of Florida)  coal plant (wikimedia)

PNC Bank: Helping to destroy mountains

2825430279_a3aa7cd059_oPNC, a big regional bank (annual revenues: $16 billion) based in Pittsburgh, has become the bank that environmental activists love to hate because of its support for mountaintop removal mining.

The bank was identified as the worst of the worst in Grading the Banks: A Mountaintop Removal Scorecard, a new ranking compiled by the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club.

According to the report, the bank has made loans to six companies engaged in mountaintop removal mining: Massey Energy, Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Arch Coal and Consol Energy.

PNC, by the way, was a recipient of TARP funds (since paid back) so these loans were, at least in a small way, your tax dollars at work.

I emailed PNC to ask for their comment and got a prompt reply from Fred Solomon, vice president, corporate communications:

PNC’s practice is not to comment on analyst or other research reports, and in general, our credit policies are proprietary information.

Interesting. We’ll see how long that no-comment approach lasts, if any of the enviro groups decide to bring pressure directly on PNC, a major consumer bank in the mid-Atlantic region. Transparency, evidently, is not for now part of the PNC culture.

I’m returning to the topic of banks and coal after just a couple of weeks (See J.P. Morgan Chase’s Coal Problem) because of a couple of significant new developments. The first is the RAN/Sierra club report card–a tactic that, in the argot of the corporate campaigns, is known as “rank ‘em and spank ‘em”. The second is a new policy from by JP Morgan Chase, released just before the bank’s annual meeting, which was held today. [click to continue...]

JP Morgan Chase’s coal problem

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Activists target Chase

Do we really want to keep blasting the tops off mountains, destroying forests and dumping the rubble into waterways, in order to extract and burn coal that is messing up the climate?

For now, the answer to that question is yes, despite vigorous efforts by environmentalists and activists in Appalachia to stop mountaintop removal mining. Some are behind a bill in Congress sponsored by Lamar Alexander, a Republican, to end the practice. Others are calling on big banks–in particular JP Morgan Chase–to stop financing mountaintop mining.

The pressure on JP Morgan Chase is coming from activist groups including the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network and an Appalachian group called Climate Ground Zero which calls itself an “ongoing campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in southern West Virginia to address mountaintop removal coal mining.” All are stepping up their efforts in advance of JP Morgan Chase’s annual shareholder meeting on May 18. They plan to release a list of the worst funders of MTR mining before then, and chances are Chase will be at or near the top.

What’s wrong with mountaintop removal mining? Lots. Here’s an overview from a [click to continue...]

Your parents were wrong

The Sierra Club and American Electric Power, the nation’s largest coal-burning utility, don’t agree on much, but there is this:

Money does grow on trees.

Along with other big environmental groups and such businesses as Duke Energy and El Paso Corp., they are part of a coalition that wants to use markets to protect the world’s forests and curb climate change.

Jeff Horowitz

Jeff Horowitz

The coalition—called Avoided Deforestation Partners, a name that will never win a branding contest—is the brainchild of Jeff Horowitz, a 58-year-old architect and newcomer to the environmental movement who has quietly become an influential player as climate change legislation inches its way through a divided Congress.

Protecting forests “is our single most important strategy, with respect to solving the climate crisis,” Horowitz says. “If we don’t tackle forestry immediately, we can’t buy enough time to get at the technological advances we need and scale them.”

I met Jeff in December at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, and visited him last week at his office in a lovely, hilly neighborhood of Berkeley. A mechanism to protect forests by steering millions of dollars from the developed world to poor countries, known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), was endorsed by governments in Copenhagen, so Horowitz felt good about the climate talks. “As far as we’re concerned, Copenhagen was a tremendous victory,” he told me.

Now he wants to make sure that forestry offsets are part of a U.S. climate bill. That will enable regulated polluters in the U.S. to offset their carbon emissions by paying to protect forests elsewhere. Protecting forests is a cheaper and quicker way to curb emissions than by switching from coal or natural gas to low-carbon energy sources like nuclear, wind or solar power. [click to continue...]