Two leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee are continuing their crusade against environmental groups. This time they are targeting the World Resources Institute (WRI), a well-respected international environmental and climate research group, over its environmental and sustainability programs in China.
Reps. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Oversight and Investigations subcommittee Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) sent a letter Wednesday to WRI President Andrew Steer asking him to provide information on work WRI has done with the Chinese government.
The House members gave WRI until next Wednesday to produce a large set of documents, including any information related to whether the group has registered as a foreign agent. The Republicans also requested a list of all WRI personnel who have engaged in “any work by WRI referring or related to China from January 1, 2014 to the present.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires all people and organizations acting in the U.S. on behalf of foreign countries to register with the Justice Department as foreign agents.
Prosecutions have been rare over the past several decades. The case against former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gate, who are accused of violating this act, is the most prominent prosecution of an alleged violation of FARA in years.
For environmental and other nonprofit groups, however, simply agreeing with the policy positions of a foreign government does not mean that the organization must register with the Justice Department.
In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Friday, WRI said it welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House Natural Resources Committee’s letter, “as we vigorously pursue our goal of making the planet safer, healthier, and more prosperous for all people.”
But WRI isn’t the first environmental group to be targeted in such a way. Recently, a large number of U.S. environmental groups, through their organizing and advocacy campaigns, have proven a thorn in the side of Bishop. The congressman is a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry who was a driving force behind getting President Donald Trump to reduce the size of two major national monuments in his home state of Utah.
Earlier this year, Bishop and Westerman targeted the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for Biological Diversity for their work in China and Japan, respectively.
Defending their efforts in China and Japan, the NRDC and Center for Biological Diversity previously told the House Natural Resources Committee that they do not need to register under FARA because they do not work at the behest of foreign governments.
Bishop and Westerman said in Wednesday’s letter that “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.”
Basav Sen, director of the climate justice project at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said he doesn’t believe the questioning of ties between U.S. environmental groups and China is part of a “China scare.” For geopolitical reasons, a relationship with China is a “convenient taint,” Sen said Friday in an email to ThinkProgress.
“The real intent is intimidating and silencing critics of the federal onslaught on the environment,” he said.
The letters sent by the Republicans need to also be put into the context of anti-protest laws being pushed in states by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups, according to Sen.
Another front in the campaign against environmental groups is the SLAPP lawsuits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation suits used to chill free speech — filed by fossil fuel companies such as Energy Transfer Partners against Greenpeace and other organizations.
“It’s a coordinated attack by the federal government, many states, fossil fuel companies, and right-wing ideologues,” Sen said.
This new GOP strategy can be compared to red-baiting, the practice of persecuting and undermining people by accusing them of being communists or socialists during the Cold War, according to James Holtkamp, an environmental attorney and adjunct professor at the College of Law at the University of Utah.
“I believe these Republicans are ‘green-baiting’ environmental groups to persecute them,” Holtkamp wrote in an analysis of the House Natural Resources Committee’s targeting of environmental groups. “Ultimately, the most dangerous thing about this probe may have to do with free speech rights.”
WRI, a nonpartisan group, was aware of the letters sent to the NRDC and Center for Biological Diversity, but it never expected to be next on the list of an environmental group to receive a letter from the committee.
“WRI is a global research organization that uses an independent, non-partisan and evidence-based approach to advance solutions that are good for Americans, and people around the world,” the group said in its statement.
In order to respond to the world’s most urgent sustainability challenges, WRI said, “it’s vital to work in the world’s developing countries and major economies, including China, the world’s most populous country.”
“We are proud of our work in China, including on issues related to air pollution, traffic congestion, and water quality,” the group emphasized.
In a statement issued after his group received a similar letter from Bishop, Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, stressed that the Utah congressman “is the one working against American interests, first by trashing our national monuments and now its democratic principles at the behest of the fossil fuel industry.”
“He’s abusing his position, tarnishing the House of Representatives and making a fool of himself with these amateurish McCarthy tactics,” Suckling said.