As strange as it might sound, the US chapter of the Sierra Club
has acquired control over a large coal reserve in the
In 2014, Sierra Club and two other environmental
non-governmental organizations ("ENGO"s) sued a coal
producer, Alpha Natural Resources, for polluting several streams in
West Virginia. As part of a 2015 settlement agreement to that
litigation, the company agreed that it would clean up its
operations by 2019.
Several months later, Alpha went into bankruptcy. During its
restructuring, in exchange for a 3-year extension to the 2019
deadline, Alpha agreed to sign control of a 53 million-tonne coal
reserve over to Sierra Club and the other ENGOs involved in the
lawsuit. The ENGOs also agreed they would not oppose the
confirmation of company's restructuring.
By retaining control over the fate of the reserve, Sierra Club
is now able to ensure that 53 million tonnes of coal remain in the
ground, thereby preventing the pollution and greenhouse gas
emissions associated with its extraction and combustion.
Although the specifics of Sierra Club's intervention are
somewhat unique, it is certainly not the first time that an ENGO
has worked with a company to acquire rights over property so as to
advance environmental conservation.
In fact, some ENGOs have begun to take a new approach to conservation—one that
places less emphasis on challenging corporations whose practices
harm the environment and focusses instead on finding ways to
protect the environment in a way that recognizes its value to
people and even corporations.
Perhaps no group better reflects this approach than the Nature
Conservancy, which is the largest environmental charity in the
world. The Nature Conservancy acquires environmentally sensitive
properties, or works with owners and governments, with a view to
conserving imperiled plants, animals, and ecosystems. However, it
has been the subject of impassioned criticism for some of its
practices, which have included permitting drilling and oil
extraction on land it has acquired ostensibly for the purpose of
The Sierra Club's move might better be characterized as
creative exploitation of an unusual opportunity as opposed to an
indication of a shift in philosophy. However, it may also be
reflective of a growing trend among ENGOs to work more
collaboratively with corporations so as to achieve larger
environmental goals, sometimes making uncomfortable compromises
along the way. Last December, for example, the Sierra Club reportedly endorsed American power company
AEP's proposal for subsidization of a set of Ohio-based coal
and nuclear plants in exchange for assurances AEP would invest in
renewable energy and convert several coal plants to natural gas in
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