03/27/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

Even Environmental Groups Can Greenwash

It's not what you know, but who you know. Relationships are everything, and they're the key to understanding why certain partnerships do not represent the real social justice and environmental movements opposing the oil and gas industry's continuing efforts to compromise public resources and wreak havoc on the environment. Last week, two separate announcements introduced us to new alliances that stand in the way of authentic initiatives to develop renewable energy. One creates a marketplace for carbon pollution and another promotes weak regulations for oil and gas companies. Both are maneuvers that will prolong our troubled reliance on fossil fuels and undermine efforts to usher in an obtainable new age of sustainability.

In Pennsylvania, AP reported on the creation of the New Center for Sustainable Shale Devlopment (CSSD), a coalition of "environmental groups, philanthropic foundations and energy companies" whose goal is "making Marcellus Shale drilling companies more accountable." Some of the partners on the list are evidence enough that accountability will be hard to find. Energy companies Chevron, CONSOL Energy, EQT Corporation and Shell have concocted their own certification system to convince some citizen groups that they support strict regulation, when they are really promoting industry self-regulation.

To think that a set of voluntary standards created in concert with the fossil fuel industry would succeed in properly regulating that industry is naive at best. In fact, the numerous public health risks, environmental risks and climate change impacts that result from shale gas development can't be properly regulated at all. The industry is inherently bad for human health and global sustainability.

In Maryland, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a government program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued a press release to announce they awarded a grant for a joint project between the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Environmental Defense Fund (which is also a part of the aforementioned "sustainable shale" initiative) for the purpose of creating a carbon offset trading market. The claim is that the collaboration was created to work with polluters to reduce agricultural pollution, but we know better. This partnership disguises what the project is actually promoting. We know it better by its nickname: the pay-to-pollute program.

The most effective way to reduce carbon and nutrient pollution is to create less pollution. Instead of helping large agricultural operations invest in resources and technology that would reduce carbon and nutrient pollution in the Bay Area, this program allows them to claim nitrogen reductions and carbon offsets in the form of credits, which they can sell to power plants and other big industrial polluters. This creates another opportunity for agribusiness to profit off the sale of pollution credits so other industrial sources of pollution can continue to pollute at, or even above, their current rates.

Unfortunately, when people see that this program involves the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and another nonprofit with "Environmental Defense" in the name, they tend to think it's a good idea, when, in fact, it is compromising the very principals of pollution reduction that most environmentalists hold dear. It's not a secret that EDF has financially benefited from relationship like this. EDF and CBF are essentially cherry-picking government funds to promote unverifiable schemes instead of tried and true regulations that help reduce pollution. And while they grab the headlines, the real environmental and consumer advocates get buried in the news or not covered at all.

Cozying up to energy companies to sell the public on a self-certification program may look like a legitimate effort on the surface, but it ultimately abandons any true form of accountability. The same is true for carbon offsets and nutrient management. Allowing large factory farms and other industrial agricultural operations to sell pollution credits to other sources doesn't reduce the overall amounts of poisons polluting our air and invading our watersheds, including the Chesapeake Bay. It's a shame that certain groups want to give these bad ideas any legitimacy, especially the ones who often get credit for leading the charge.