This story was updated at 10:15 p.m. EDT.
Prompted by concerns raised by Republican lawmakers, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether environmental groups should register as agents for foreign governments.
Wheeler said in a letter today that EPA will turn to DOJ’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit given Republican lawmakers’ worries about overseas money being given to green groups.
"Given heightened concern that foreign countries, primarily China and Russia, are potentially funding U.S.-based ‘green’ groups to undermine American energy independence and to help maintain the integrity of EPA’s decision-making, EPA will refer this matter to the DOJ FARA Unit," Wheeler said.
"The DOJ can then determine what appropriate steps to take, if any, including whether those entities should be registered as a foreign agent," he said.
Wheeler noted it’s not a violation of law for nonprofit groups to accept foreign funding. In addition, foreign groups can submit comments to EPA and meet with U.S. government officials. He stressed, however, "foreign influence should not be covert."
In his letter, Wheeler was responding to concerns raised by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas).
The EPA administrator added, "Should additional groups, beyond those listed in your letter, including any funded by Sea Change Foundation, be identified as potential sources of foreign influence EPA will refer those matters to DOJ as well."
EPA Chief of Staff Mandy Gunasekara also tweeted out Wheeler’s letter.
"If not properly disclosed, this could be a violation of the law," she said. "We are on it."
Gooden had asked EPA in an Oct. 8 letter to investigate some environmental groups.
"I respectfully request that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conduct a swift and thorough investigation into foreign influence, financial involvement, and election interference by a number of environmental groups in the United States, including the Sea Change Foundation, the Sierra Club, and the Sunrise Movement," Gooden said.
"Based on information recently brought to my attention, I believe there is considerable evidence of foreign interference in our government, perpetrated through environmental groups like these taking shelter behind the non-profit status of donor anonymity," he wrote.
The Sea Change Foundation referred E&E News to a July 2018 statement from Nat Simons, its director. Simons said press reports saying Klein Ltd., a Bermuda-based charity affiliated with the group and renamed Sea Change Foundation International Ltd., has received funding from outside sources are "factually incorrect and have no basis."
"Neither Klein nor Sea Change Foundation has ever solicited or accepted contributions from non-family related sources," Simons said.
A spokesman for the Sierra Club referred E&E News to a response from Melinda Pierce, the group’s legislative director, in 2017.
"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," Pierce told Politico at the time.
Erin Bridges, the Sunrise Movement’s fundraising director, said in a statement shared with E&E News that there were "no grounds for this accusation."
"This is nothing less than a bogus far-right conspiracy propped up by Trump’s corrupt EPA head, Andrew Wheeler, who is a former coal and gas lobbyist. It’s another exhausted attempt from fossil fuel cronies to conjure up some vast conspiracy theory that’s been debunked again and again," Bridges said. She also noted Gooden has received campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry’s PACs and executives.
"We’re not intimidated by the Congressman who is bankrolled by fossil fuel executives in order to do their bidding," Bridges said.
Other Republican lawmakers have long sought to tie environmental activists to foreign governments. Last month, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) requested DOJ investigate several green groups for "potential foreign influence" in a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr (E&E Daily, Sept. 17).
The environmental movement has been heavily critical of the Trump administration over its moves to roll back several environmental regulations. It has also been a big financial backer of President Trump’s Democratic opponent in the presidential campaign, Joe Biden, and other Democratic candidates.