The Right’s New Strategy on Climate: Criticizing Billionaires’ Spending

2014 816 epw fwRepublican minority, Senator David Vitter (right), on the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works accuses environmental billionaires on colluding with EPA, August 6, 2014. (Screengrab: Senator David Vitter / YouTube)

A recent report from the Republican minority on the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) makes a bizarre accusation: It claims that a few billionaires and environmental foundations constitute a villainous network conspiring to spread propaganda against the use of fossil fuels.

However, it’s the accusers themselves who are most guilty of “propaganda” boosting, if that group’s investments and contributions from the oil and gas industry are taken into account. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with foundations funding the spread of information and awareness. It’s a ubiquitous model that is used by organizations across the political spectrum.

The report, titled, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA,” traces donations and contributions to some of the most well-known environmental foundations and nonprofits in the nation – without actually ever claiming these organizations have done anything wrong. Instead, the report claims the organizations are elitist, and that they drive a “far-left agenda,” using “backroom deals and transfers” to execute their insidious program of mitigating the global climate crisis.

The report comes as Republicans who safeguard oil and gas interests find themselves on the defensive amid moves by the Obama administration to cap the emissions from new power plants and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Critics say this context is key to understanding the report’s strategy.

“[The committee minority] tried to turn it around, and I don’t think they’ve done a very good job,” said Russell Mendell, who is campaign director with Frack Free Colorado, a grassroots movement working for alternatives to hydraulic fracturing. “They’re telling people that [environmentalists] are Goliath and they’re David. How ridiculous is that? It’s really a ‘sky is pink’ type of situation.”

Faux Grassroots Groups?

In the EPW report, Frack Free Colorado is accused of being a fictitious group, used to implement policy goals the committee minority doesn’t want to see happen in Colorado. But Mendell says his group hasn’t received any money from the wealthy individuals and foundations mentioned in the committees’ report – only other forms of institutional support such as labor and materials.

“If a group cosponsors one of our events, it doesn’t mean they’re funding us,” Russell said.

Still, the report implies that because Frack Free Colorado and other community-based groups in the state have worked in coalition with New York-based nonprofits on events and have expressed solidarity, this means those New York-based nonprofits are directly funding their groups’ efforts.

Even if the wealthy individuals and foundations were funding his groups’ work, Russell said, it wouldn’t be illegal, and many wouldn’t agree that these organizations would be doing anything wrong. This operating model is far from conspiratorial – rather, it’s quite ordinary.

The committee minority’s report points to Mendell, of Frack Free Colorado, as a key lynchpin in the conspiratorial network that connects these “faux” nonprofits together, simply because he used to work for some of the East Coast groups. However, Mendell attended college in Colorado and has lived there on and off since he was 19, considering himself much more of a local Coloradan than a New Yorker. The idea that his New York work experience situates him at the center of a vast secret network reeks of (badly constructed) conspiracy theory.

In fact, when it comes to truly “faux” grassroots groups pushing an ideological agenda in the state, which are not backed by a true citizen movement, Mendell pointed to industry-supported “astroturf” groups that came into the state shortly after the Frack Free Colorado campaign took off.

“What I’ve seen is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Colorado from oil-allied organizations and fracking-allied organizations,” he said. “We’ve been hugely outspent whenever we’ve run a campaign by local citizen ballot initiative, sometimes as much as 20-to-one; sometimes it’s even more than that, but on average that’s about what we’re seeing.”

He pointed to a group in particular, Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, as a prime example of an astroturf group in his state: While the group claims to be from Colorado, it’s actually run by two companies, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy, from Houston, Texas, as the group indicates on its website.

Another one of the groups named in the EPW committee’s report is Bold Nebraska, a coalition of ranchers, landowner, farmers, citizens and indigenous peoples in Nebraska working to protect the state’s land and water from threats such as the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Mark Hefflinger, Bold Nebraska’s new media director, recently responded to the EPW committee report’s claims about the group in a blog post, writing:

This hyper-partisan report fails to mention the gigantic Big Oil campaign contributions to its Republican authors. On average, each Republican member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has received $736,650 in contributions from Big Oil and other fossil fuel corporations since 1999. [2]

The GOP report also conveniently omits the tens of millions of dollars that Big Oil funnels annually to lobbyists and truly “faux grassroots” groups like “Nebraskans for Jobs & Energy Independence,” a group created by a TransCanada lobbyist and the local head of the building trade union that backs the Keystone XL pipeline. [3]

Bold Nebraska takes our marching orders from farmers and ranchers, and we invite the authors of this report to come visit Nebraska and witness our actions in person.

It’s true: Almost every member in the Senate Committee Republican minority has received contributions from the oil and gas industry.

Billionaires Club for Whom?

Senator David Vitter heads the Republican minority on the committee that released the report. He also happens to be one of the 54 US senators who is a millionaire, a majority that has been dubbed, “the millionaires club.”

The bulk of Vitter’s campaign money has come from the oil and gas industry, with him receiving a total of $675,450 from the industry this election cycle. According to Open Secrets, $38,000 of that total has come from Koch Industries.

Vitter also owns stocks worth tens of thousands of dollars in coal companies fighting the EPA’s new rule to cap carbon emissions from power plants.

One of those coal companies is Wisconsin Energy Corporation, widely known as We Energies, which owns power plants in Oak Creek and Pleasant Prairie in Wisconsin. The profit margins of those plants are threatened by the EPA’s new rules, as indicated in the company’s most recent US Securities and Exchange Commission Form, originally reported at DeSmogBlog.

Vitter also owns hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock held collectively in General Electric, NextEra Energy, Emerson Electric, ExxonMobil and Chevron.

But Vitter is not the only culprit within the Environment and Public Works Committee’s Republican minority whose contributions and investments reveal the duplicity of the report. All but three of the Republican members on the minority have received major contributions to their campaigns and political action committees from the oil and gas industry, according to data from this election cycle from Open Secrets.

Senator James Inhofe has received a total of $489,250 from the oil and gas industry, with $45,200 of that from Koch industries; Senator John Barrasso has received $501,166; Senator Jeff Sessions has received $100,250; and Senator Roger Wicker has received $264,166.

According to an analysis by Roll Call in 2010, Sen. Sessions’ net worth increased to $2.24 million in 2009. In 2010, he was the 33rd richest senator.

Considering these senators’ combined ties to the billions held by the oil and gas industry, it seems the other “billionaires club” has an interest in criticizing what environmentally minded wealthy people do with their money.

The report indicated it was authored by the Senate’s Republican minority on the EPW, but any primary authors of the document remain unclear. Sen. Vitter’s office and the office of EPW did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

A Counterintuitive Strategy

Key organizations on the right are currently preparing to implement policy agendas to try to undermine the EPA’s new clean carbon rules as well as the executive orders issued by the White House to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Framing issues related to climate change was a central theme for one of those organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), at its recently held 41st annual meeting in Dallas, Texas, where conservative lawmakers and corporate officials drafted “model” legislation that will likely be introduced in state legislatures across the country in the coming legislative sessions.

A draft resolution opposing the EPA’s carbon emissions rules emerged at the recent meeting, and a panel was held to teach members “How to Think and Talk About Climate and Energy Issues.” ALEC also invited a representative from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a group funded by the Heartland Institute, to deliver the group’s recent report on questioning the current scientific consensus on the issue of climate change.

As ALEC members attempt to stymie environmental regulations at the state level, Senate Republicans are trying to damage the reputations of environmental advocates on the national level – using the very same language that environmentalists use to criticize ALEC and the fossil fuel industries.

Environmental groups have long criticized the lack of transparency of organizations funding faux grassroots movements that defend oil and gas corporations’ bottom lines.

Now, Sen. Vitter and his friends on the EPW committee are attempting to turn this transparency line around, forgetting that this tactic only works if there is substance behind the claims. There’s a difference between citizen groups getting funding from wealthy donors and foundations, and real astroturf groups that are started and funded by the industry to protect the status quo.

“It’s pretty crazy that people who have these giant wealthy funders with an obvious financial interest in what happens in Colorado should be attacking citizen activists who are really scraping by,” Mendell said. “We do this because we love our community. We have nothing to gain except for our clean air and clean water and our health.”