GOP Congressmen Launch ‘Foreign Agent’ Probe Over NRDC’s China Program

The environmental group, which has sued the Trump administration over its climate policy rollbacks, also works on clean energy and pollution issues in China.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, informed NRDC he would use his congressional committee to investigate the environmental non-profit. NRDC works in several countries to reduce pollution, fossil fuel use and carbon emissions that affect lives around

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, informed NRDC he would use his congressional committee to investigate the environmental non-profit. NRDC works in several countries to reduce pollution, fossil fuel use and carbon emissions that affect lives around the world. Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Republican leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee have launched a probe into what they describe as potential "undue influence" by the government of China over a leading U.S.-based environmental group.

Their target is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization with 1.3 million members that works internationally to promote and defend environmental law. NRDC, which has sued the Trump administration repeatedly over its efforts to roll back environmental protections, has worked in China for many years to promote clean energy and a retreat from reliance on fossil fuels.

The letter announcing the inquiry marked an extraordinary escalation in rhetoric by Republican opponents of climate action on Capitol Hill, recalling in miniature the campaign of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who wreaked havoc in the 1950s with allegations that communist sympathizers had infiltrated academic institutions, the film industry and even the U.S. military.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee chairman, and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of its oversight and investigations panel, requested that NRDC by next week turn over documentation of any payments it has received from Chinese officials. They also asked for documentation of NRDC's registration as a "foreign agent," or an explanation of why the environmental group should not be registered as required by law for those who lobby on behalf of a foreign government.

"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 lawmakers said in the letter, dated June 5. "The NRDC's relationship with China has many of the criteria identified by U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement as putting an entity at risk of being influenced or coerced by foreign interests."  

There have been no committee votes to endorse such an investigation, but House rules give leeway to chairs to act on behalf of committees. For the House Natural Resources Committee, two members is considered a quorum for calling witnesses.

A House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman did not respond to InsideClimate News' question on how the swipe at NRDC differed from "red-baiting" of the past. She also declined to respond to a query about whether the committee had received any specific information from the U.S. intelligence agencies to prompt the inquiry. And she would not address how NRDC's work differed from that of numerous private companies and academic institutions in the United States that have developed partnerships with China to promote clean energy. "The letter and corresponding footnotes speak for itself," she replied in an email.

The lawmakers' letter cited visits by NRDC officials to meet with Chinese officials, as well as NRDC blog posts like a 2016 essay by NRDC President Rhea Suh, "What I Saw in China Will Help Change the World," as evidence of NRDC's work "to promote the image of China as a global environmental leader."

NRDC: Reducing Pollution for a Livable World Is in the National Interest

NRDC responded in a statement that the values that propel its work to promote environmental protection are home-grown and necessarily lead it to work to reduce pollution from China, the nation with the largest population and carbon footprint.

"NRDC seeks environmental solutions that are grounded in sound science, U.S. law and the public interest," said Bob Deans, NRDC's director of strategic engagement. "We work on behalf of every American to protect our people against dangerous pollution and leave our children a livable world. Those are American values, American goals, and advancing them is manifestly in our national interest, as we have consistently demonstrated for nearly 50 years.

"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," he said. Deans said NRDC looks forward to discussing its work in China with Bishop and the committee.

Many Energy Companies Partner with China

NRDC has not been alone in working with the Chinese government on clean energy and climate change.

Over the past decade, a number of U.S. companies—including energy companies  Southern Company, KBR, Peabody Energy and Duke Energy—established partnerships with Chinese companies to advance carbon capture and other clean energy technologies. There also have been a number of partnerships between Chinese institutions and U.S. universities like Stanford, Harvard and Tufts.

The U.S. government also has a U.S.-China Renewable Energy Partnership and a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center. Greenpeace and World Resources Institute are among the environmental groups that also have China programs.

NRDC as a Different Case?

In their letter, Bishop and Westerman sought to portray NRDC as a different case. While Greenpeace has been critical of Chinese government practices, on fishing, for example, the lawmakers said, NRDC "generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials."

In fact, NRDC does not provide unalloyed praise for China on its webpage about its program in that country, and instead describes the central conundrum that has forced the group's focus on Beijing.

"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," NRDC's website says. "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 more the country uses its enormous reach to push for sustainable options, the more its residents—and the entire planet—will benefit."

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