Those of us worried sick over climate change confronted a depressing piece of excellent reporting in Monday’s Washington Post. Environment reporter David Fahrenthold wrote that environmental organizations are getting their proverbial clocks cleaned by a well-organized and pervasive campaign mounted by affected industries in small and mid-size communities throughout America. “It seems that environmentalists are struggling in a fight they have spent years setting up,” Fahrenthold wrote. “Even now, these groups differ on whether to scare the public with predictions of heat waves or woo it with promises of green jobs.”

If scaring the public is the objective, environmentalists don’t have to look very far for hard facts to support the effort. All they really need to do is focus on what the world’s most prominent and reputable scientists keep trying to tell us about the dismal state of the environment that we’re preparing to hand over to our children — not in 100 but in 30 or 40 years — if we don’t control our energy consumption. Spend an hour perusing the various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a remarkable consortium of thousands of the world’s leading experts in all of the relevant scientific disciplines, and the scope and severity of the problem will be abundantly clear. It’s even more troubling when one considers that the IPCC is an international group that operates by consensus, and still manages to frame warnings that will turn your hair white.

So what’s the dilemma for environmentalists? Why don’t they simply recite the facts, reminding Americans of the great damage caused by unregulated pollution and the important benefits of cleaning it up? It’s a strategy that has worked on a number of environmental issues in the past, even in the face of brutally misleading industry campaigns along the lines of the one we’re now witnessing. Why, when even John McCain ostensibly agrees with them on this issue, have so many decided they need to convert climate change into an economic development issue?

Well, even without the effective industry campaign and the expected outspending of environmental organizations by fossil fuel producers, a dismally bad economy is a very tough time to bring up legislation that admittedly would cost significant money sooner than it will deliver its far more valuable benefits. The worst damage will be in the developing world, and despite dire predictions of sea levels overwhelming the Florida coastline and the edges of Manhattan, weak-kneed legislators hide behind the demand that China and India go first.

But environmentalists are making matters tougher on themselves by confusing the public about what is truly at stake. Green jobs are a good idea, but not the main reason to control carbon emissions. And when folks cross the line into advocating the interests of specific industries that could reap a windfall from the legislation, they hopelessly confuse their audience.

I have great respect for the work of the Center for American Progress (CAP), and its founder and leader, John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff and Obama transition head. Indeed, the Center for Progressive Reform has worked with CAP on a number of occasions in the past, and looks forward to future collaborations. But Podesta recently joined with former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, also a progressive with a strong track record, to produce a report on energy sources that has some language that endorses a rollback of environmental protection beyond the reasonable expectations of the energy industry.

The report was jointly published by the Center and the Energy Future Coalition, a “broad-based non-partisan alliance that seeks to bridge the differences among business, labor, and environmental groups and identify energy policy options with broad political support.” Its advisory council includes the director of corporate affairs for Shell Oil Co., and its steering committee includes Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a preeminent national environmental group. The report‘s main purpose is to sing an anthem to natural gas as the “bridge fuel for the 21st century.” It proposes to use money raised by selling licenses to release carbon to compensate the owners of old, dirty coal-fired power plants that would be closed down, analogizing the program to the popular “cash for clunkers” automobile subsidy program.

Now, nothing is wrong with politics making strange bedfellows, as all the tributes to Senator Ted Kennedy illustrated so well. But the partnership should be judged by the content of the proposals it yields, not simply by the novelty of the collaboration.

In this case, the collaboration has produced a proposal that would significantly delay meaningful controls on a method of extracting natural gas that is among the most environmentally destructive ways to produce electricity. They write (on pages 9-10 of the report):

One critical part of the process for producing shale gas in the United States, including shale gas, is called “fracking.” It involves pumping water and other materials under high pressure deep into rock formations that hold gas. The process fractures the rock and holds open the fissures to allow the gas to flow to the surface more efficiently. This process can employ toxic chemicals such as benzene and has the potential to pollute deep aquifers,
groundwater, and surface waters.

Adjacent communities are concerned about the public health impacts from the use and release of toxic substances, both naturally occurring and those used in the natural gas production process such as benzene, formaldehyde, or radioactive materials. The process also yields significant amounts of air pollution.

As a first step, the EPA must undertake a comprehensive scientific analysis of the air, land, water, and global warming impacts from natural gas production.

After the release of this analysis, states should have the opportunity to adopt the appropriate safeguards to protect their residents and environment. If a state declines to act after a reasonable amount of time, then the federal government should have the authority to establish safeguards for the state based on the state’s particular characteristics, including location of the gas, water system, and other relevant variables.

On its face, such a policy seems to make sense. But what it ignores is that EPA has a long history with fracking, having spent thousands of hours mastering the environmental downsides of natural gas production. That’s why the report could list the problems with the method with such certainty. “A comprehensive scientific analysis” is an industry euphemism for another long stall — not for months but for years — before regulators take effective action to curb the environmental damage caused by the mammoth expansion of natural gas production that the report advocates. Worse, the idea that after doing all this research, EPA should stand back and let the gas-producing states take the lead, stepping in only after much more delay, would amount to a rollback of environmental protection to the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s, before modern environmentalism and federal regulation began.

No wonder the Washington Post‘s David Fahrenthold thinks the environmental movement is so confused. Its leaders need to expand their vision beyond forming coalitions with industry and return to the kind of advocacy they do best: explaining to the American people what will happen to the environment if we do not act.

This post originally appeared in the Center for Progressive Reform blog.