News » Citizen

Michael Brune

Boulder-White Clouds, gas exploration and that 60 Minutes interview


Michael Brune had some boots-on-the-ground--quite literally--research ahead of him at Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds area.

"We're camping up there for three nights," the executive director of the Sierra Club told Boise Weekly, anxious to give one final interview before heading for the hills.

"We" is Brune, wife Mary and three children--9-year-old Olivia, 5-year-old Sebastian and 2-year-old Genevieve. The five were in the middle of a driving, hiking, biking and campaigning vacation that had already taken them to California's Redwood National Park, Oregon's Crater Lake National Park, and Washington's Alpine and Wild Sky Wilderness areas.

"A little bit of business and a lot of family time," he told BW.

Just before heading to one of Idaho's most idyllic settings, Brune sat down to talk about the Boulder-White Clouds, natural gas exploration and some of the controversy that swirled around his November 2010 interview on 60 Minutes, just a few months after taking the top job at one of the oldest and most influential environmental organizations in the nation.

Our reporting tells us that the differing sides are only getting further apart on whether we should establish a Boulder-White Clouds Mountains National Monument (BW, Citydesk, "A River of Debate," June 25, 2014).

We don't think there's a unanimous agreement on anything; we do believe that a substantial part of the political middle supports protection for the Boulder-White Clouds.

So, do you choose to live in that optimism?p>

I live in that optimism that is infused with reality.

But you can't even get a hearing on the issue. You must acknowledge that congressional gridlock is getting worse with every passing day.

It's almost impossible not to be cynical and have a certain amount of sorrow and despair for the state of our government. I do think the Republican Party is more to blame on this, because their stated strategy is not to give the president any victories.

But we have a president who will not run for any other political office. Doesn't that give him some breathing room in exercising the Antiquities Act?

Absolutely. Democrat and Republican administrations, most of them in the final two years of their presidency, have done some significant, very ambitious designations using the Antiquities Act.

Can you speak to the Sierra Club's research on the Alberta Tar Sands project? Idaho has some passing knowledge of the tar sands because some of its equipment has been hauled on so-called "mega-loads" rolling through our state.

The Tar Sands are the most destructive project on the planet--straight up. You can see the strip mines from outer space.

And talk to us about how President Obama's decision on the Keystone Pipeline is tied to all of this.

What we have found is that the more people know about the Tar Sands, the more inclined they are to not support the Keystone Pipeline.

But even members of the Democratic Party are telling Obama to step away from the Keystone issue and let it go through.

We think he'll reject it, because there's no way to approve an expansion of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet while, at the same time, trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Idaho is entering a critical stage in its burgeoning industry of natural gas exploration.

That's a problem.

What do you make of the immense marketing engine coming from the natural gas industry, insisting that it's clean energy and a solution to many of our problems?

They're doing that because it's a contest; they know the current controversy over fracking is significant.

Which brings me to your November 2010 interview on 60 Minutes. I'm presuming that you've read the pushback and criticism of your comments on gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil.

It's important to look back. Seven or eight years ago, the Sierra Club looked at gas as a "bridge fuel," an opportunity to get off of coal or oil. But right about the time I started with the Sierra Club, there was a lot of new information on the risks of fracking. And a lot of that information showed the impacts of gas were much worse than initially thought.

Do you consider the Sierra Club's position to have, let's say, "evolved" on the use of natural gas?

Our policy has changed significantly.

To be clear, are you saying gas is not clean energy?

That's correct. Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel. It's not a bridge. It's a gangplank. There's no way to build an economy fueled by clean energy that includes natural gas.

And what would you say to Idahoans, including quite a few of our lawmakers, who see gas exploration as a positive thing, particularly for our economy?

Look out. You're in trouble if fracking expands throughout the state. Don't believe the hype. The jobs that fracking produces are always overstated. We're at a fork in the trail and we have an opportunity to reject fossil fuels.

Finally, how important an issue is the environment on this November's ballot?

Elections matter, in explicit and implicit ways. We're not going to be able to prevail on climate change and protect our wildlands until we get people that vote the right way. And the only way we can do that is to elect, or un-elect, people because of their values.