- - Monday, July 20, 2015

One of America’s oldest, most respected environmental nonprofits has traded in one kind of green for another. Some of the Sierra Club’s board members and most important donors have put the almighty dollar before Mother Earth by encouraging the organization to engage in activities that bolster their bottom line.

In a new report, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute reveals that a number of environmental activists, including billionaires Nathaniel Simons, Roger Sant and Michael Bloomberg, benefit richly from their hefty donations to the Sierra Club.

Mr. Simons, a hedge fund baron worth an estimated $12 billion, has donated more than $14 million to the Sierra Club since 2009. Those contributions have largely been earmarked for campaigns to “educate the public about clean energy.” The donations have likely proven quite worthwhile to Mr. Simons. According to Fortune magazine, at the same time he was underwriting the Sierra Club’s efforts to promote renewables, Mr. Simons was quietly creating a clean-tech venture fund that invests in clean energy.

Mr. Sant, co-founder of Applied Energy Services, has donated as much as $4 million to the Sierra Club, according to IRS records. Mr. Sant, who still serves as chairman emeritus of the renewable energy company, is among the most outspoken advocates for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, and it’s no wonder. Such a policy would mean millions of dollars for Mr. Sant and other Applied Energy Services investors. Few organizations have championed a carbon tax more fervently than the Sierra Club. Those efforts have undeniably been bolstered by Mr. Sant’s contributions.

Mr. Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor, has donated more than $105 million to the Sierra Club since 2011. Mr. Bloomberg, who is well-invested in the renewable energy industry, is able to fan the fire of Sierra Club’s unfounded fossil fuel hysterics. By using his Bloomberg L.P. media empire to give credibility to the organization’s war on fossil fuels, he is able to spur demand for renewables, padding his portfolio in the process.

This isn’t the first damning example of conflicts of interest between the Sierra Club and its directors uncovered by the Energy & Environment Legal Institute.

The Sierra Club’s well-known “Beyond Coal” campaign has been largely discredited because the campaign appears bought and paid for by board members and other donors who benefit financially from the organization’s anti-fossil fuel crusades,

Eight of the Sierra Club Foundation’s 18 directors are involved with organizations that profit from the Beyond Coal campaign, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute discovered.

Those directors are owners, founders and CEOs of renewable energy companies and investment firms that donated millions to the Sierra Club’s war on fossil fuels. These green energy tycoons knew lambasting coal, oil and natural gas would increase demand for renewables like solar and wind … and generate more money for their businesses.

Companies with top executives on the Sierra Club’s board of directors include solar firms such as SolarCity, Sun Run and the Solaria Corp., as well as the green energy investment funds at Barclays, Walden Capital and Boston Common Asset Management.

For those eight board members, earnings, not the environment, appear to motivate their involvement with the Sierra Club.

The organization’s largest donor – ultimately the funder behind much of the Beyond Coal campaign – may have the biggest investment of anyone in strangling America’s cheap and stable conventional energy market. That man, David Gelbaum, has spent $500 million starting, buying and investing in more than 40 green energy companies, from solar panel makers to electric car producers, all of which benefit from the Sierra Club’s attack on fossil fuels. For Mr. Gelbaum, the $100 million he has donated to the Sierra Club is a marketing expense; a way to vilify his competition and entice more people to buy into his expensive green energy schemes.

Obviously, today’s Sierra Club, which seems to operate first and foremost as a political lobbying firm focused on enriching its donors and board members, is a far cry from what celebrated naturalist John Muir had in mind when he created the organization in 1892. As Energy & Environment Legal Institute’s Legal Executive Director Craig Richardson points out, the Sierra Club’s war on fossil fuels is “an effort that clearly benefits the very same people who are donating the money – it’s clear the Sierra Club is now just a mercenary force beholden to the highest bidder.”

The egregious conflicts of interest created when Sierra Club donors and board members use contributions to entice the organization to engage in advocacy efforts that benefit the donors’ pocketbooks aren’t just unethical. They’re also illegal.

According to the IRS, if a nonprofit’s donors or board members intentionally financially benefit from the actions of the organization, it “would lose its tax exempt status for at least one year.”

Losing its tax-exempt status would be a devastating blow to the Sierra Club. But, by engaging in activities to make its donors and board members a quick buck, the organization has already lost something far more valuable: its credibility.

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