House Republicans investigate NRDC’s work on Chinese clean energy issues

Committee says other environmental groups also under scrutiny.

Chinese tourists wear masks as protection from the pollution outside the Forbidden City during a day of high pollution on in Beijing, China. CREDIT: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Chinese tourists wear masks as protection from the pollution outside the Forbidden City during a day of high pollution on in Beijing, China. CREDIT: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Top Republicans are digging for information about a prominent U.S. environmental organization’s relationship with China to determine whether the group is operating in a way that could be defined as serving as a foreign agent for the Chinese government.

The effort by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), chairman of the committee’s oversight and investigations panel, offers similarities to the Red Scare period in U.S. history. It also serves as another example a long-standing campaign by pro-fossil fuel politicians to stir suspicion that environmental activists are under the control of authoritarian countries such as Russia and China.

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The two Republicans sent a letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on Tuesday seeking documents related to the group’s relationship with China. The lawmakers contend the NRDC appears to engage in “self-censorship” on environmental issues in China and “generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials.”

In their letter, Bishop and Westerman complain that “by contrast, the NRDC takes an adversarial approach to its advocacy practices in the United States.”

They contend the NRDC’s “need to maintain access to Chinese officials has influenced its political activities in the United States and may require compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”

“The committee is concerned about the NRDC’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,” the Republicans wrote.

In response to the letter, the NRDC emphasized the importance of its work on behalf of environmental issues in the United States.

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“We work on behalf of every American to protect our people against dangerous pollution and leave our children a livable world,” Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement at the NRDC, said Tuesday in a statement. “Those are American values, American goals, and advancing them is manifestly in our national interest, as we have consistently demonstrated for nearly 50 years.

The group also defended its focus on environmental concerns in China. “As the most populous country on Earth, China has much to do with the kind of world the next generation will inherit, in our country and around the world,” Deans said. “We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone, and we look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee.”

The Republican committee leaders gave the NRDC until June 12 to provide them documents showing their relationship with the Chinese government.

The NRDC isn’t the only environmental group under investigation by the House Natural Resources Committee. “The committee has been monitoring several other environmental groups and will seek inquiry as appropriate. The investigation will go where the evidence leads,” committee spokesperson Katie Schoettler said Wednesday in an email to ThinkProgress.

Schoettler declined to name the other environmental groups or the focus of the investigations.

Over the past decade, government and natural gas industry officials have speculated that Russia has covertly funded and worked with European environmental groups to oppose fracking and maintain Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. The investigation by the House Natural Resources Committee is the first time U.S. lawmakers have officially tried to link environmental groups to the Chinese government.

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More recently, politicians also have accused Russia of secretly funding funding U.S. anti-fracking and environmental organizations in an attempt to discredit the groups and distract from the debate on the merits of fracking and burning fossil fuels.

“Polluting corporations and the politicians they buy have a long, shameless history of attacking environmental activists who dare to oppose their outrages against nature and the people who rely on it, which is to say all of us,” said Mark Hertsgaard, the environment correspondent for The Nation and the author of numerous books on the environment, including HOT: Living Through The Next Fifty Years On Earth.

“Only Rep. Bishop himself can know whether he’s making these ludicrous charges against the NRDC to distract from Donald Trump’s love for Vladimir Putin, but corporate lackeys like Bishop do not need that sort of tactical motivation to spring into action,” Hertsgaard told ThinkProgress.

Efforts by the NRDC and other environmental groups to use the courts to stymie the Trump administration’s anti-environment agenda represent a clear irritation for congressional Republicans. On its website, the NRDC touts the fact that it has sued the administration about once every 10 days.

“Right now, the courts are one of our best defenses against Trump,” NRDC senior attorney Nancy Marks said in a video released in March titled “How to Sue the President.”

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In their letter, the Republicans specifically attack these claims by the NRDC, describe the level of litigation against the Trump administration as “disconcerting.”

Along with the NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and several other environmental groups have sued the Trump administration over its attempts to unravel environmental and public health protections.

The NRDC is also among many types of entities that have worked with the Chinese government on clean energy and environmental issues. Companies such as Duke Energy, Peabody Energy, and Southern Co. have established partnerships with Chinese companies to advance carbon capture and other clean energy technologies, Inside Climate News reported Wednesday.

The U.S. government itself has a U.S.-China Renewable Energy Partnership and a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, Inside Climate News noted.

In addition to offices in the United States, the NRDC has an office in Beijing. On its website, the NRDC says it “became the first international organization to establish green energy and building programs in China.” The group also has a China program that houses several experts and advocates that work in the group’s Beijing office.

In 2017, a new law went into effect in China regulating foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to China File, a news site published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, the law makes it clear that the Chinese government views NGOs as a security issue. The law mandates that foreign NGOs must register with China’s Ministry of Public Security or a provincial-level equivalent before establishing an office within mainland China.

According to the new law, foreign NGOs are permitted to work in economics, education, science, culture, health, sports, environmental protection, poverty, and disaster relief but must not endanger China’s national unity, security, and ethnic unity, or harm China’s national interests.

Previously, foreign NGOs were more lightly regulated in China under the 2004 “Regulations for the Management of Foundations.”

The NRDC has not avoided criticism of the state of the environment in China. On its website, the environmental group notes that “China pumps out more climate change pollution than any other nation, but it also invests more in clean energy than anywhere else in the world.”

“Its cities have some of the dirtiest air and largest urban populations on earth, yet China has made a serious commitment to turning those cities into healthier places to live,” the NRDC says.

In their letter, Bishop and Westerman seek to use a 2016 fisheries study published by Greenpeace to demonstrate the NRDC’s alleged bias in favor of China. The Greenpeace study is critical of China’s commercial fishing policies. The letter then notes that only a few months after Greenpeace released its study, the NRDC praised China’s “bold new reforms” on domestic fisheries.

The NRDC declined to comment on the allegations in the Republicans’ letter beyond the statement of Bob Deans.

According to Hertsgaard, the Republicans’ letter follows a decades-long practice of politicians seeking to tarnish the reputations of individuals and groups by linking them with repressive regimes.

“For decades,” Hertsgaard said, “right-wing politicians in Congress and in statehouses across the United States have casually flung around charges of ‘communist’ and ‘un-American’ when citizens fight for their rights to clean air, land and water.”