Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Russian agents sought to influence the presidential election, hacking Democrats’ emails and meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., and other members of the Trump campaign.
But did you know that the right-wing has its own Russia conspiracy, alleging that Moscow is secretly funding environmental organizations—and that two congressmen have now requested a formal investigation by the Treasury Department?
Probably you didn’t know that, but it’s been a favorite right-wing conspiracy theory since at least 2014. Trouble is, it’s less like Russiagate and more like Pizzagate.
Like many conspiracy theories, this one has a small grain of truth, surrounded by layers upon layers of circumstantial connect-the-dots, hearsay and repetition. The allegation is, at its core, that Russian agents are promoting fear, uncertainty, and doubt regarding fracking—and, in subsequent iterations of the conspiracy, climate change—in order to promote their own petroleum interests. The less the U.S. and Europe fracks, the more Russian oil they have to buy.
That theory makes some sense, but is there’s not much evidence to support it.
The one shred of evidence, first adduced in 2014, is a Bermuda-based company called Klein Ltd. that, since its founding in 2011, has donated $23 million to a U.S. foundation that, in turn, has funded U.S. environmental groups. That company’s law firm, Wakefield Quin, also represents companies with Russian ties—though not any Russian companies or clients. And one of WQ’s senior partners, also on the board of Klein Ltd., was once part of an investment firm whose president was once the board chair of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.
Sound tenuous? Well, it is. When Klein Ltd. really seems to be is a Panama-Papers-style shell company controlled by the Simons family, the hedge fund millionaires who also fund that U.S. foundation, the Sea Change Foundation. This is not at all uncommon. They fund some of Sea Change by direct donation, and some through the shell company, no doubt for the usual reasons of tax avoidance and regulatory compliance.
A spokesman for Wakefield Quin categorially denied the accusation, telling newspaper that “Our firm has represented Klein since its inception, and we can state categorically that at no point did this philanthropic organisation receive or expend funds from Russian sources or Russian-connected sources and Klein has no Russian connection whatsoever.”
But a “shadowy” company with “ties” to the Russian government sure sounds sinister, even though those ties are more like untied shoelaces trailing on the ground.
Most usefully, the conspiracy theory explains why environmental groups are powerful—not because millions of Americans are members of them and are sincerely concerned about environmental issues, but because it’s all a vast Russian conspiracy.
This conspiracy theory, has, like the game of telephone, gotten bigger and bigger as the years have gone by.
It was born in 2014, in Europe and the United States. Local officials in Romania and Lithuania supported fracking efforts by Chevron accused Russia of funding the protests against them in early 2014. This time, it was Gazprom allegedly behind the protests, but the logic was the same as the later theory: undermining fracking to help Russian financial interests.
That accusation, like the American ones, had no direct evidence to support it. But crucially, NATO’s outgoing secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, repeated it on June 19, 2014, telling a London think tank 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 dependence on imported Russian gas.”
As the New York Times noted at the time, Rasmussen cited no evidence, and European environmental groups denied and denounced his claims. Subsequently, the Romanian and Lithuanian controversies have fizzled because Chevron has discovered that their geography is not actually that suitable for fracking.
But at almost the exact same time that Rasmussen made his remarks, none other than Hillary Clinton pushed the theory as well, while giving a closed-door speech to Canadian banks supporting the Keystone XL pipeline. How do we know? Yup, John Podesta’s hacked emails.
“We were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media,” said Clinton on June 18, 2014. “We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, ‘Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you,’ and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.”
Of course, what that speech actually shows is that Clinton’s progressive critics were right that she is either in bed with large financial interests, or willing to tell them anything for money and votes.
But since these remarks went public in 2016, the Russia-Environmental Conspiracy has cited them as proof positive. (Clinton is suddenly trustworthy when it comes to exposing Russian anti-fracking efforts.)
No one knew about those comments in 2014, of course, but two other developments caused the theory to enter the mainstream-ish Right.
First, that July, the minority (Republican) members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works released a report, notable for its vitriolic, alt-right language, called “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.” (Interestingly, the report is no longer available on the committee website but is archived on the “leftexposed.org” website, run by the fossil-fuel-funded Heartland Institute, which likely had a hand in the report’s authorship.)
Most of the report was focused on the so-called “Billionaire’s Club,” an “elite group of left wing millionaires and billionaires… who directs and controls the far-left environmental movement” (in reality, the mainstream corporate environmental organizations like EDF and NRDC). But the report devoted several pages to the Sea Change Foundation, and, for apparently the first time, also singled out the heretofore obscure Klein Ltd. for “doling out tens of millions” (i.e. $23 million).
The Senate minority report did not mention Russia, but later in 2014, the industry-funded, astroturf (i.e. fake environmental) group Environmental Policy Alliance put out a report on its “Big Green Radicals” website that connected the dots for the first time. That is who first made the tenuous connection from Klein’s $23 million to its lawyers to people who have sat on boards with Russians.
The astroturf report expertly wove two strands together: Russia’s alleged anti-fracking efforts, and the Sea Change Foundation’s funding of the broader environmental movement. With just the slimmest filament of connection, the entire environmental movement is now being funded by Russians. That broader allegation has since been repeated by pieces in the Daily Caller, Daily Signal, The Free Beacon, the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, and other right-wing and alt-right websites.
And then, in January 2017, Newsweek ran a piece by a right-wing researcher that repeated the same claims (Russians, Klein, Sea Change) but wove in an unnamed and unlinked “recent intelligence reports” that that the Russian-government-supported RT network had run anti-fracking programs. Of course, RT has also run programs on water polo, but in classic conspiracy-theory illogic, the Newsweek piece made it seem like all of these disparate threads were connected. “It seems the only folks left attacking fracking are puppets of the anti-science, anti-American Russian propaganda machine,” the piece somehow concluded.
(Incidentally, I’m not sure how more investment in solar and wind energy—which U.S. environmental groups strongly support—helps sell Russian oil, but never mind.)
Which brings us to the June 29, 2017, letter from Rep. Lamar Smith and Rep. Randy Weber of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The letter repeats the unsubstantiated and limited claim by NATO’s Rasmussen, the unsubstantiated and limited claim by Hillary Clinton, the unsubstantiated claims in the Newsweek piece, and the meaningless claims about Klein Ltd., down to the details of Wakefield Quin’s accountants.
Nothing new is in that letter, and no evidence is adduced other than a Bermudan shell company sharing a lawyer with a firm that invested in Russia. Yet still, the congressmen allege, “the strategy of Sea Change is to apply domestic political pressure using its deep pockets—with most of the funding coming from Russia [emphasis added].”
That claim isn’t even borne out by the conspiracy theorists. Even they say that a majority of Sea Change’s money comes from the Simons family (which, recall, is probably funding Klein Ltd. as well).
But, the two congressmen ominously conclude, “if the above allegations are true, Russian entities have funneled money through shell corporations to U.S. environmental activist organizations to influence U.S. energy policy.”
In a way, this ludicrous conspiracy theory is just a laughable instance of the mainstreaming of the alt-right. What was formerly confined to the alt-right echo chamber is now, unbelievably, in the halls of congress. These days, anything goes.
But it’s no joke. What’s really ominous about the congressional letter is that they are calling for an actual investigation of actual people who have done nothing wrong other than back a cause Republicans don’t like. It’s one thing to spread pseudo-science about climate change—it’s quite another to threaten people with jail time (as the congressional letter does) based on smoke and mirrors. That’s when the alt-right echo chamber becomes mob justice.
The conspiracy theory may be ridiculous, but a criminal investigation on the basis of it is a terrifying prospect—not unlike an armed man “self-investigating” a pizza parlor because of something he read on the internet. Except these men are armed with the full force of the American government.