Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has helped resurrect a fake narrative that U.S. environmental groups are accepting help from his country to undermine the American gas industry.
For the last eight years, some Republican lawmakers and conservative think tanks have claimed without evidence that Russia is funding anti-fracking campaigns by large American environmental groups. The false assertions gained renewed attention when Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine four weeks ago, with conservatives trying to link Russia to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.
The claim has been debunked, but congressional Republicans recently suggested that the issue could be the focus of an investigation if the GOP takes control of Congress after the midterm elections.
“All options are on the table,” a Republican House staffer told E&E News.
Ten days ago, about two dozen Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the Sierra Club, NRDC and LCV demanding to know if the groups had lobbied against fracking and if Russia funded their efforts. Last year, committee Republicans sent similar letters to other environmental groups asking if they were connected to China.
“If the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club have nothing to hide, then we look forward to seeing the evidence by March 25,” said committee spokesperson Jack Heretik.
The League of Conservation Voters called the claims “a fossil fuel industry-funded smear campaign that gets revived every few years to serve as a distraction.”
Communications experts said the attempt to link green groups to Russia is a case study in how right-wing media, think tanks and politicians perpetuate climate misinformation by distorting nuggets of truth to mislead their audience.
The issue stems from false claims that Russia steered donations to some of the largest environmental groups in the U.S. to help fund activism against fracking. The conspiracy theory suggests that demand for Russian gas could grow if antagonism toward fracking slows down production at American wells. There’s no evidence that Russia made payments to the environmental groups.
Still, the suggestion that U.S. green groups are acting as Russian assets resurfaces every year or so. During the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers and Cabinet officials asked the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department to investigate the baseless claims. Neither request produced public results.
Once the false information has been spread, it’s nearly impossible to correct it and stop it, said Arunima Krishna, a Boston University communications professor who studies scientific and climate disinformation.
“Once it’s out there, it’s out there,” Krishna said. “The disinformation message continues to have a continued influence effect even after the correction has been issued, after it has possibly even been understood. So any future misinformation messages that confirm that initial misinformation have only served to further solidify the misinformation position.”
The conspiracy theory appears to have originated from a comment made by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at an event hosted by a London think tank in 2014. Rasmussen, who has spoken in support of hydraulic fracturing, told the audience he heard that Russia could be funding the anti-fracking movement.
“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”
When pressed later about the claim, Rasmussen said, “That is my interpretation,” The Guardian newspaper reported. NATO officials quickly distanced the organization from Rasmussen and said he was speaking for himself, not NATO.
That comment rippled throughout conservative media in 2014 as alleged proof that the worldwide anti-fracking movement, which had a series of victories blocking oil and gas drilling in different regions, was helping Putin sell more Russian gas globally.
Rasmussen, who did not respond to a request for comment, has never produced evidence to back up his assertions.
Meanwhile, conservative media outlets often omit a key part of Rasmussen’s quote.
They sometimes leave out this part of his comment: “I have met allies who can report that Russia.” That omission removes the hearsay element of Rasmussen’s claim and makes it appear as if Rasmussen was speaking with first-hand knowledge, which he never claimed to have.
The misinformation then snowballed.
In 2015, Rasmussen’s claims were picked up by the Energy Policy Alliance, an alleged think tank connected to the Washington lobbying firm Berman and Co. The firm is known for creating dozens of industry front groups to spearhead political attacks against green groups, anti-smoking campaigns and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The Energy Policy Alliance claimed that the Sea Change Foundation could be receiving money from Russia through a Bermuda-based company called Klein Ltd. In reality, both Sea Change and Klein are connected to the family of James Simons, a hedge fund investor and one the world’s richest people. His son, Nat Simons, is president of Sea Change and corrected the false assertions about Russian funding in 2018 when he revealed publicly that Sea Change receives all of its money from the Simons family.
“Klein nor Sea Change Foundation has ever solicited or accepted contributions from non-family related sources,” Nat Simons said.
The controversy caused by the Energy Policy Alliance’s false claims tapered off for about a year.
Then the issue caught fire again in 2016.
WikiLeaks released emails obtained by Russian hackers from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. The emails included an excerpt from a Clinton speech in which she claimed that “phony environmental groups” had been set up by Russia to oppose fracking and pipelines.
WikiLeaks released only a partial text of Clinton’s remarks, and it was not clear which region of the world she was talking about or the groups to which she was referring. Clinton has never confirmed or denied the details of those comments to verify their authenticity.
One thing is clear: Clinton was not referring to the same environmental groups now being targeted by House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans. They have been established for decades. One group, the Sierra Club, was even pro-fracking at one time and promoted natural gas drilling because it was cleaner than burning coal. The Sierra Club has since reversed that position.
In 2017, the director of national intelligence issued a report showing that Russia Today, or RT, the state-controlled media outlet, ran what it defined as “anti-fracking” programming.
Later that year, former Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who at the time was a leading climate science critic in Congress, asked the Trump administration’s Department of Treasury to investigate the claim that Russia had given funding to environmental organizations.
To back his assertions, Smith cited conservative media outlets that had repeated the quote by Rasmussen, the former NATO official, and the Energy Policy Alliance’s paper. Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry told a Fox News interviewer at the time that he supported the probe.
The Treasury Department never took public action.
A 2018 Senate report on Russian meddling in U.S. politics found that Russia-connected groups took out social media ads that both promoted and attacked fracking.
In 2020, then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Trump appointee, asked the Department of Justice to investigate the environmental groups’ alleged connection to Russia. DOJ did not publicly produce any evidence that the claims were true.
Nonetheless, just days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last month, The Federalist quoted a former Trump EPA official repeating the claims as if they had been verified. The Hill ran an opinion piece on the subject by someone employed by a Texas think tank connected to the Koch family. Fox News aired similar stories that quoted Michael Shellenberger, a frequent GOP witness in climate-related hearings, and other sources who repeated the misinformation.
When asked for evidence connecting the environmental groups to Russian money, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee pointed to the same sources that have been cited for years: right-wing think tanks and conservative media outlets.
That is a primary function of misinformation, said Boston University’s Krishna, it builds on itself. The more attention it receives, the more enticing it is to spread and amplify, she said.
“Disinformation messages may not completely be accurate, but they allow folks to continue justifying their behaviors,” Krishna said.
This story also appears in E&E Daily.