Axios reported Friday that House Republicans will launch a probe into environmental NGOs based on a right-wing rumour that foreign powers, including China and Russia, are using nonprofit green groups to influence U.S. policy. That unsubstantiated rumour has been pushed for years by a PR firm employed by the fossil fuel industry to run astroturf campaigns that attack members of the environmental movement.
In a blog post posted earlier this month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that he would use his leadership in Congress to investigate, among other things, “environmental NGOs’ collusion with Russia and China to hurt American Energy.” The idea of environmental NGOs colluding with foreign governments has also been a particular focus of the House Natural Resources chair Bruce Westerman, who launched a probe into nonprofit the World Resources Institute in 2018.
“Chinese officials continually work to control environmental information and news stories in an effort to counter the country’s status as the world’s largest polluter,” a press release on the investigation reads. “The Committee is examining WRI’s role in aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in ways that may be detrimental to the United States.”
Westerman told Axios that other energy issues have higher priority on his agenda, but if “there’s evidence the Chinese government is funding their actions, we have to go after them. I don’t care what kind of group they are.”
McCarthy and Westerman’s interest in this topic builds on a series of letters sent by GOP politicians to various green groups asking about supposed foreign influence.
“We write to you with significant concerns that American progressive advocacy groups may be advancing U.S. government economic and environmental policies to the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party,” reads a letter sent to Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash last year. Another letter, sent in March to the League of Conservation Voters, alleges that “Russian President Vladimir Putin funds certain environmental non-governmental organisations around the world to create fear among other nations’ use of [fracking] to ensure dependence on Russian gas.”
These allegations and investigations don’t come from thin air. In March, the Washington Post debunked the claims about Russian connections to green groups, tying the original rumour to a group called the Environmental Policy Alliance, which started pushing it in 2015. While the Environmental Policy Alliance may sound like the name of a legitimate nonprofit, it’s actually run by a PR firm known as The Berman Group, which has a long history of providing astroturfing services to corporations — including founding front groups that run campaigns to criticise government agencies, nonprofits, labour unions, and other entities. (The firm’s strategies are so well-known in Washington that, in 2011, 60 Minutes dubbed founder Richard Berman “Dr. Evil.”)
The Berman Group has significant ties to the fossil fuel industry and has run campaigns using its front groups attacking anti-fracking groups and making (truly wild) videos attacking the EPA and regulations meant to lower air pollution. In 2014, Berman told fossil fuel executives at an industry meeting that they should employ down-and-dirty tactics when fighting against environmental groups.
“Think of this as an endless war,” Berman said, according to the New York Times, which obtained a recording of the meeting. “And you have to budget for it.” In the same speech, Berman’s colleague described how the firm had dug into the personal lives of the leadership of groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defence Council in an attempt to find dirt to publicise.
“People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?’’ Berman said in the 2014 meeting. “We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organisations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”
Now, it seems that all that money spent on spreading rumours about green groups is finally bearing fruit. Great to know that taxpayer dollars are helping to fund an investigation into a claim made up by a “Dr. Evil.”
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