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As strange as it might sound, the US chapter of the Sierra Club has acquired control over a large coal reserve in the Appalachians.

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 focuses 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 protection.

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 future.

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