House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), left, joined at right by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in Washington June 8, 2016. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The chairman and a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee have written a letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council suggesting that the environmental organization register as a foreign agent because of its climate and environment activities in China and public statements the lawmakers alleged served China’s interests.

In the letter, committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations,  demand that NRDC President Rhea Suh produce documents about the nonprofit group’s relationship with the Chinese government, its transactions in China and any effort to register as foreign agents of China.

The NRDC has worked for years in China urging the government to slow the growth of coal use, improve building efficiency, track and limit mercury emissions, clean up diesel leaks in Chinese ports and help develop environmental laws.

The lawmakers said the NRDC’s meetings with Chinese officials, its criticism of the U.S. Navy’s use of long-range sonar (which could affect marine life) and its praise of Beijing’s efforts to comply with the Paris climate accord all served Chinese government interests. They said NRDC had held back on criticism to protect its relations with China.

“The Committee is concerned about NRDC’s role in aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in a way that may be detrimental to the United States,” the letter said. “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.”

The Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938 requires people acting as agents of foreign nations in a political capacity to periodically disclose their relationship as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.

But just taking positions that happen to be consistent with those of a foreign country in some cases is not enough to trigger a FARA registration requirement, countered Joe Sandler, an attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.

“For an organization, for whatever reason, to say positive things about a foreign government or foreign government’s policies that happen to coincide with the government’s interests doesn’t result in the need to register under FARA, unless you did it at the request or direction of the foreign government,” Sandler said. “There’s no indication, at least in the text of the letter, that that’s the case here.”

Sandler, who has served as general counsel of the Democratic National Committee, is an expert on foreign registration.

“NRDC may adopt a positive tone in its public positioning on China to encourage the Chinese government to do more, but it is a hardheaded, relentless, and fearless American NGO that operates in a very difficult political environment to foster the best environmental standards and practices globally,” added Elizabeth Economy, who directs Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite that, the committee insisted there were grounds for an investigation. “Even this morning they were talking about how great China is, despite China being one of the top polluters in the world,” House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman Katie Schoettler said in an email. “There is a clear disconnect between how they conduct their advocacy in our system versus their actions in China.”

The committee created a montage on its home page showing a photo of the Chinese Communist Party leadership with the letters NRDC superimposed above a map of China and a hammer and sickle. No such image has ever been used by the NRDC.

The NRDC rejected the notion it was working on behalf of the Chinese government.

Spokesman Bob Deans said in a statement that “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. We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone, and we look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee.”

Deans also said the NRDC “seeks environmental solutions that are grounded in sound science, U.S. law and the public interest. 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.”

Jennifer Turner, director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, said it was “hard to believe that someone would call the NRDC an agent of China. One would expect the Chinese of accusing them of being a U.S. agent except they have worked for 20 plus years to create good working relationships in China, catalyzing groundbreaking changes in policy and open information by working with Chinese researchers, lawyers, NGOs, and local governments.”

Read more:

China wrestles with stubborn air polluters

With cap and trade plan, China adopts emissions policy that couldn’t get through U.S. Congress

China’s pledge to cut greenhouse gases eliminates excuse for other nations