House Science Committee: Russia Secretly Backed Anti-Fracking Campaigns

A pair of House Republicans are smearing green groups by claiming they received funds from Russia.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Photo Credit: Flickr/NASA HQ

As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, a pair of House Republicans are hoping to inspire a Russia investigation of their own.

Reps. Lamar Smith and Randy Weber, both of Texas, say the Kremlin funneled money to environmental groups with the aim of undermining U.S. oil and gas interests.

In a six-page letter dated June 29, the GOP lawmakers asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to investigate whether Russia secretly backed American environmental campaigns against fracking, a technology that helped the U.S. overtake Russia in gas production. They argue the Kremlin intended to distribute “propaganda” and “misinformation” about fracking to prop up its own natural gas sector in the face of increasing U.S. exports, Politico reported in July.

Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a method of injecting high volumes of chemical brine into rock formations to extract oil or natural gas. The method is over 60 years old, but as it became more widespread, American communities and green groups began to wonder about negative consequences.

While some scientists remain concerned about fugitive methane emissions and their contribution to climate change, the most publicized qualms centered not around fracking itself but the disposal of fracking chemicals and wastewater. By 2014, hundreds of complaints had rolled in from small-town residents who said their well water was fouled by fracking chemicals.

Most of the early opposition to fracking came from local coalitions, but Smith and Weber directed their accusations to larger green groups. Their letter alleges that Russia used a Bermuda-based shell company to direct funds to nonprofits in the U.S., which eventually made their way to big-name groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

Caught in the fray

The groups dismissed the allegations as a cheap ploy to distract the public from Mueller’s ongoing investigation. "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,” Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement, as cited by Mashable.

This is false,” David Willett, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, told Politico. “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.”

Smith and Weber both have longstanding ties to the oil and gas sector. Smith received more than $736,000 in campaign contributions from the industry during his 30-year Congressional career, over $200,000 of which came after he took the seat as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Weber, who also serves on the committee, raked in over $200,000 from oil and gas companies since 2011, and the sector remains his largest campaign backer.

If you believe campaign contributions can sway a lawmaker’s behavior, this isn’t a bad tactic for Smith and Weber: By stoking fears about a Russian connection at a time when U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War, the pair can discredit environmental groups and bolster their buddies in the gas sector. Their campaign financing alone isn’t enough to dismiss their theory as bogus, but proving such a money train exists takes facts, not conjecture.

A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Smith said Americans should get their news “directly from the president” and derided the media’s use of anonymous sourcing, so it’s worth taking a look at the sources he and Weber use for their flagrant claim.

Consider the source

The most controversial source cited in the letter is a speech attributed to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The transcript excerpt, said to be from a paid speech Clinton gave to a Canadian marketing firm in 2014, is part of the document dump published by WikiLeaks in the run-up to the election.

“We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians,” the alleged transcript reads. The context of this statement is murky, as journalists including Ben Lefebvre of Politico and Matthew Sheffield of Salon pointed out.

Clinton promoted shale drilling in Europe as secretary of state, so it is unclear whether she was referring to environmental groups in Europe or the U.S. It’s also unlikely that Clinton would use the term “phony environmental groups” to describe well-established organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters, regardless of any questions about unknowing receipt of Russian funds.

And the authenticity of the transcript remains in question, as the campaign “has refused to confirm or deny the content of any of the leaked materials,” wrote Lefebvre of Politico.

The letter also cites Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former secretary-general of NATO. “I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas,” Rasmussen said in a speech that strangely came one day after Clinton’s alleged remarks.

As Sheffield of Salon pointed out, “He did not present any evidence for his allegation.” And the Congressmen’s connection to the United States is even weaker: “Other officials have indicated the same scheme is unfolding in the U.S.,” they wrote simply.

To whom they are referring is unclear, but they also cite the January intelligence report that formally accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. The report notes anti-fracking coverage on Russia’s international television station, RT, but the unclassified version makes no mention of a money-laundering scheme involving green groups.

A deeper dive into the footnotes reveals that the bulk of the Congressmen’s theory relies on a 2015 report from a right-wing think tank called the Environmental Policy Alliance. The Alliance has positioned itself as a watchdog that seeks to expose the “hidden agendas” behind environmental organizations, though Sourcewatch calls it a “front group.”

The report highlights $23 million that Bermuda-based Klein Ltd. donated in 2010 and 2011 to the American nonprofit Sea Change Foundation, which distributes funds to groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It goes on to present a tangled web that allegedly connects Klein and its co-founders to Russian businessmen, but the Alliance notes that it can’t prove anything and admits, “It is unclear who is funding Klein.”

In their letter, Smith and Weber argue that although “the source of Klein’s capital has not been documented,” these business connections are enough to “strongly suggest” Klein is being funded by Russia’s oil and gas sector.

Representatives from both Klein and Sea Change vehemently denied receiving Russian funds. An attorney representing Klein decried the allegations as “completely false and irresponsible” in an interview with Salon and seemed to threaten legal action. And a Sea Change spokesperson told Politico that its grants were not earmarked for anti-fracking campaigns.

The bottom line

On its face, it appears that Smith and Weber are using decontextualized and circumstantial evidence to equate Klein and Sea Change—and, by extension, environmental groups—with fraudsters and money launderers. But it’s important to understand this letter for what it is: a petition for the start of an investigation.

As one House Science Committee aide who requested anonymity told Politico, “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.” That being said, the use of phrases like “covert anti-fracking campaigns” are clearly used to sensationalize the argument when really it relies on evidence that is shoddy at best.

The Sierra Club has already said it can confirm its grant money from Sea Change came from a private American donor. And although Energy Secretary Rick Perry indicated he expects Mnuchin to take up the investigation, whether or not he will remains unclear. Given the ongoing discussions about tax reform and the debt ceiling, he may very well have bigger fish to fry.

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Mary Mazzoni is a freelance environmental journalist and editor based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared on TriplePundit, Yahoo Travel, Budget Travel, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.