Republicans are trying to conjure up a Russian scandal they can get behind.
GOP House members and at least one Trump Cabinet member are pushing years-old allegations from conservative activists that Russia has funneled money to U.S. environmental groups to oppose fracking. The story has reappeared in conservative circles in recent weeks — a respite, perhaps, from the steady drip-drip of news reports about dealings between Russians and President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
Allegations have circulated for years that Moscow has sought to discourage European countries from developing their own natural gas supplies as an alternative to Russian fuel. And conservatives have sought to extend those concerns to the U.S. — though there’s little but innuendo to base them on.
But the rumors got new life in late June, when House Science Chairman Lamar Smith and fellow Texas Republican Rep. Randy Weber asked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to investigate whether the Kremlin is bankrolling green campaigns against the fracking technology that helped the U.S. overtake Russia in gas production.
Among other material, Smith and Weber cited articles in conservative news publications and an alleged Hillary Clinton speech published by WikiLeaks — part of a trove of stolen Clinton campaign documents that U.S. intelligence agencies have linked to Russia’s election-meddling efforts.
The reports, the Republican lawmakers wrote in the letter to Mnuchin, suggest “that Russia is also behind the radical statements and vitriol directed at the U.S. fossil fuel sector.”
Green groups dismissed Smith’s allegations as an attempt to divert attention from all the news surrounding Trump and Russia.
“If Congressional Republicans are so concerned about Russian influence, they should start seriously investigating that country’s interference in our election, not attacking long-standing environmental organizations,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, one of the groups Smith and conservatives have accused of potentially taking Russian money.
The League of Conservation Voters, another group named in Smith’s letter, also blasted the Science Committee’s allegations.
“This is false,” LCV spokesman David Willett said. “We have no connections to Russia and have been an effective advocate for environmental protection for over 45 years. This seems like nothing more than an attempt at distraction away from the Trump campaign’s well-publicized interactions with Russian interests to influence the election.”
Still, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page have both run items about the committee’s letter, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry lent his voice to the effort when a Fox Business anchor asked whether he supported an investigation.
“Absolutely,” Perry said in the July 11 broadcast. “Steve is a very capable and very focused business individual who knows that this type of activity has to be investigated, has to be halted.”
Spokespeople for the Energy Department and Treasury Department did not respond to questions. A White House spokesperson did not reply to questions about whether the allegations had made their way to Trump.
Anti-fracking sentiment in the U.S. started bubbling up among U.S. environmental groups as soon as the oil and gas production method started surging in the late 2000s, with the documentary “Gasland“ appearing in theaters in 2010 after a year and a half in production. Much of that opposition was driven by local activists in new gas hot spots like Pennsylvania who complained about threats to their drinking water, while major national environmental groups like the Sierra Club were slower to take up the cry.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who oversees an economy almost totally dependent on oil and gas exports, has also slagged fracking technology. He once said that fracking makes “black stuff” come out of people’s water faucets, according to a New Yorker report.
Still, there is no evidence that Russian money has gone to U.S. green groups, at least on the national level, said Brenda Shaffer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies. And there is even less evidence that any money would have been well spent, given how hard it would be to push widespread fracking bans through the myriad of local, state and federal governments involved in permitting, she added.
“It would be almost impossible to prevent fracking in the United States,” Shaffer told POLITICO.
The evidence the committee cites includes comments that former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made at a London-based think tank in 2014, when he said he believed Russia was working with environmental groups in Europe to oppose shale gas development.
“Other officials have indicated the same scheme is unfolding in the U.S.,” Smith’s letter goes on to say — though from there the trail becomes murkier.
The letter also cites a speech that Clinton allegedly delivered in Canada in 2014, according to Clinton campaign emails published by WikiLeaks, in which the former secretary of State supposedly said she had encountered “phony environmental groups” that opposed pipelines and fracking. The emails were part of a cache of Democratic documents that U.S. intelligence officials believe were originally pilfered by Kremlin-linked hackers.
“I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by Russians,” Clinton says in the alleged transcript.
But the text does not indicate whether Clinton — who promoted shale gas drilling in Europe — was referring to environmental groups in Europe or the United States. A Clinton campaign aide did not answer questions about the veracity and the context of the speech. The campaign has refused to confirm or deny the content of any of the leaked materials.
Still, the alleged Clinton quotes have taken off in conservative news outlets, with The Daily Caller and Washington Times including them in articles published in the past year. Smith, in turn, cited those articles in the footnotes of his letter to Treasury.
“It’s a theory, but the reasoning behind it makes sense,” said a committee aide, who requested anonymity. “The chairman is saying there’s data points pointing to this theory, and he’s saying the Treasury secretary can shine some light on this. This isn’t out of left field and crazy.”
Science Committee aides also argued that last year’s national intelligence report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election supports the concerns raised in Smith’s letter. However, the intelligence report doesn’t allege any Kremlin outreach to U.S. environmental groups.
The intelligence report’s non-classified, 14-page version makes reference to anti-fracking programming broadcast by Kremlin-controlled news channel RT. “This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability,” the report says.
Much of the rest of the case that Russia funneled money to U.S. green groups comes from a 2014 report created by the Environmental Policy Alliance, which describes itself as “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups.”
The group shares a Washington, D.C., address and a phone number with a public relations firm run by Richard Berman, a lawyer and former lobbyist who has also created issue groups such as the Center for Union Facts and Center for Consumer Freedom — prompting liberal critics to nickname him “the astroturf kingpin.” CBS News once called him “Dr. Evil” in a 2011 piece focusing on his lobbying efforts on unpopular issues, including a campaign against Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
A representative of the Environmental Policy Alliance confirmed that Berman’s firm manages the group.
The group’s report and Smith’s letter focus on $23 million that a Bermuda-based philanthropic firm, Klein Ltd., donated in 2010 and 2011 to the San Francisco-based Sea Change Foundation, according to information disclosed in Sea Change’s IRS tax forms. Sea Change then awarded around $55 million in each of those years to the Sierra Club Foundation, U.S. Climate Action Network, Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups to promote energy efficiency and climate change-related operations, according to its IRS tax filings.
“Although the source of Klein’s capital has not been documented,” the Science Committee’s letter says, the panel alleged that various corporate and personal connections “strongly suggest” that the money originated with “the Russian government and energy sector.”
But a lawyer representing Klein told POLITICO that none of the money came from sources connected to Russia. And a Sea Change spokesperson said none of its donations to environmental groups were earmarked for opposition to fracking.
“The Klein Foundation grants were given as general support and no requirement was made that the funds be used for specific projects, programs, or activities of the Sea Change Foundation,” the spokesperson said.
Berman’s report draws on a court case filed in the British Virgin Islands in the mid-2000s that resulted in a money laundering conviction against IPOC Group, an entity owned by Leonid Reiman, Russia’s former telecommunications minister and adviser to Putin, according to an outline of the case maintained by the World Bank. Roderick Forrest, a lawyer for Wakefield Quin, a law firm representing Klein Ltd., was one of IPOC’s directors, according to case documents.
The House committee did not contact Klein as part of its fact-finding, a committee aide said. But Forrest railed against the accusations and said the company was considering legal action following the committee’s letter.
“The allegations are completely false and irresponsible,” Forrest told POLITICO. “We can state categorically that at no point did this philanthropic organization receive or expend funds from Russian sources or Russian-connected sources and Klein has no Russian connection whatsoever.”
The Sierra Club’s Pierce also denied that any of the money it received from Sea Change ultimately came from Moscow.
“We have confirmed that the origin of these funds is a private U.S. donor who cares about climate change and has invested in the work the Sierra Club does to tackle the climate crisis and advance the clean energy economy — not from Russia,” she said.