A year of environmental controversy - and that's a good thing

Eric Pooley

Like most people, I don’t seek out controversy – who needs the headache? But this year I was reminded that passionate public arguments can bring clarity and strengthen resolve, especially when the controversies are triggered by positions you firmly believe in.

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe in working with all kinds of people – as long as doing so will help protect human health and the natural world. We believe the environmental movement needs a bigger tent: more people from all walks of life fighting on behalf of environmental protection. That’s why we often partner with individuals, groups, and businesses not typically seen as environmentalists. And that’s why we’re sometimes seen as controversial.

In 2013, some of our unusual allies included Mike Duke, the recently retired CEO of Walmart, and executives from Anadarko Petroleum, Noble Energy and Encana. As one reporter wrote in a recent profile of EDF, that’s “not exactly the typical Rolodex for…one of the country’s largest environmental groups.”

Our approach may be atypical, but it’s effective. Here are three areas of our work that generated controversy in 2013 as well as results we’re proud to stand by.

Natural Gas

Whether we like it or not, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are now standard practice for U.S. natural gas production. And the fact is that natural gas development can impose serious risks on public health and the environment. That’s one reason why EDF is working hard to accelerate the transition to clean, renewable energy, and it’s why some environmentalists oppose all hydraulic fracturing. We understand that view – and we’re fighting for the traditional rights of local communities to regulate natural gas – but we don’t think bans or moratoria are sufficient. America is not going to wean itself off natural gas overnight. Natural gas heats more than half of U.S. homes, supplies more than a third of our electricity, and is a critical ingredient in our pharmaceuticals and fertilizer.

That doesn’t mean we have to sit by while development hurts our communities. No one should be forced to put their health and quality of life at risk for the sake of cheap energy. That’s wrong, and that’s why EDF is fighting for tough regulations and strong enforcement — vital protections needed to safeguard our air, water, land and public health.

Sometimes we fight tooth and nail against industry lobbyists to win those protections. And sometimes we’re able to negotiate with industry. In November, Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado proposed new regulations for oil and gas operations that, if adopted, will cut both conventional air pollution and climate pollution – by making Colorado the first state in the nation to tackle the problem of methane emissions.

While the new Colorado proposal doesn’t address all the issues surrounding oil and gas development, the governor and the state’s regulators should be applauded for their efforts in bringing forward these commonsense air pollution measures, which were agreed to and supported by EDF, Anadarko Petroleum, Encana, and Noble Energy. We’re proud to have helped reach that agreement, and in 2014 we’ll be defending it against attack from companies that think it goes too far and some allies who don’t think it goes far enough. As Bill Clinton used to say, if you’re getting it from both sides you’re probably in the right place.

We’re going to keep at it, because we want to make 2014 the year America got serious about its methane problem. The main component of natural gas, methane is an incredibly potent climate pollutant. Whether burning natural gas is better for our climate than burning coal depends on how much uncombusted methane leaks into the atmosphere from the natural gas system — but no one knows exactly what the leakage rate is.

To find out, EDF has launched an ambitious series of sixteen scientific studies – with over 90 partners drawn from academia, think tanks, NGOs and the energy industry – to measure methane emissions from the entire natural gas supply chain. It is work like this that led to the groundbreaking proposal in Colorado. And many of the sixteen studies simply wouldn’t be possible without industry participation, because the scientists wouldn’t have access to the natural gas fields.

Toxic Chemicals

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is as antiquated as it is inadequate. Among its many problems, it doesn’t help us distinguish between safe and unsafe chemicals, and it perpetuates the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward safer chemical and product design.

In May of this year, Senators Frank Lautenberg and David Vitter introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act with strong bipartisan support. It is far from a perfect bill (see our official position for a detailed accounting of its strengths and weaknesses), but Republican and Democratic support in a bitterly divided congress makes it the best chance in a generation to reform our outdated chemicals policy.

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act needs to be strengthened and improved, then passed. Some in the environmental community think Congress should throw out the bill and start over from scratch. We disagree – and that’s seen by some as controversial. But we’ve been waiting decades for a law that ensures chemicals are deemed likely to be safe before they enter the market. Our children’s health demands that we not let this chance slip away.

Corporate Partnerships

When a reporter asked the great safecracker Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton supposedly replied, “because that’s where the money is.” EDF works with multinational corporations because that’s where the pollution is – if you want to drive energy and emissions reductions through supply chains that are bigger than most nations, you need to work with big companies like Walmart. Our partnership with Walmart has generated criticism for years, so it’s important to understand that we do not accept money from corporate partners such as Walmart. Our work is funded by generous individuals and foundations, ensuring our independence and credibility.

Grist.org recently ran an article mischaracterizing our relationship with Walmart, and my colleague Tom Murray wrote a clarifying response that laid out just a few of the reasons we celebrate Walmart’s environmental gains, including:

  • 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses that EDF convinced Walmart to publicly commit to cutting from its supply chain.
  • 15 million acres of farmland that EDF and Walmart are targeting to optimize fertilizer practices, which could ultimately avoid 7 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. These initiatives will touch 30 percent of food and beverage sales in North America.
  • 100 thousand products screened for hazardous chemicals thanks to a tool EDF helped create that identifies toxic chemicals in products.

Working with a company as big and controversial as Walmart makes you a target, but it can drive outsize environmental gains. And fighting for strong rules on toxic chemicals and natural gas can make you a target too – but without those rules, people and ecosystems are left unprotected. We’re confident this is the right path for EDF.

After all, some of the approaches we were criticized for in years past – in everything from fisheries management to acid rain pollution reduction – are now widely hailed as successes. So, guided by sound economics and rigorous science, we’re going to keep fighting for a healthy environment – and working with unusual allies when that will help drive progress. If that turns out to be controversial in 2014, so be it.

See 2 comments