For years, environmentalists have criticized Republicans in Congress for ignoring climate change and trying to whittle down protections for endangered species.
Now, some top House members have found a way of striking back with more than just rhetoric. Two top GOP members of the House Natural Resources Committee have opened probes into three high-profile U.S. environmental groups working on issues abroad. The Republican congressmen want to know whether during their advocacy work the groups have acted as agents of foreign governments.
The environmental groups that find themselves in the GOP's crosshairs say that big environmental issues, such as ocean pollution and climate change, are global in nature and require engaging foreign leaders. They cast the probes as part of a campaign to browbeat them for opposing Republican policies that prioritize energy development over environmental concerns.
“We know this whole issue is an effort — a clumsy, McCarthyist effort — to intimidate us,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of one of the targeted groups, the Center for Biological Diversity.
The latest environmental group probed by Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas is the World Resources Institute. On Wednesday, the pair requested documents pertaining to the group's work in China, where it has hailed the Chinese government's pledges under the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“The Committee is concerned that WRI's relationship with the Chinese government may have influenced its political activities in the United States,” Bishop and Westerman wrote in a letter sent to WRI on Wednesday.
Describing itself as "a global research organization," WRI responded to the letter by saying in a statement to The Post that "it’s vital to work in the world’s developing countries and major economies, including China." The group welcomes "the opportunity to respond to the Committee’s letter," the statement said.
Bishop and Westerman, respectively the chairmen of the committee and of its oversight and investigations subcommittee, have requested reams of documents from the groups by invoking the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The requests came in letters to WRI, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity sent over the past four months.
The 80-year-old FARA law requires those paid by or acting as agents of nations abroad to influence political activity at home to periodically disclose those ties with the U.S. government. The committee wants correspondence between the groups and foreign governments to see whether they are required to register as foreign agents and failed to do so.
FARA — once a low-profile law resulting in only “about a half-dozen prosecutions,” according to Joshua Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock and an expert in foreign-registration law — has made headlines recently since its use by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to prosecute President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Merely agreeing with the policy position of a foreign government, as many environmental groups end up doing, does not mean an organization needs to register with the Justice Department, Rosenstein said.
"Just having overlapping issues with some third party,” Rosenstein said, “does not mean you're acting as an agent for that third party.”
That has been the defense of the NRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity. Both say they do not need to register under FARA because they do not work at the behest of foreign governments.
“We answer to our leadership, and only our leadership,” said Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement at the NRDC. “We’re held to account by our members and supporters.”
Like WRI, the NRDC is being investigated by the committee over its climate and environmental activities in China and, as Bishop and Westerman put it in their letters, with "the ruling Chinese Communist Party."
“Of course we work in China,” Deans said. “The most populous country in the world, China is a key player in any serious effort to leave our children a livable world.”
The invocation of China's Communist Party has led Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity to say the representatives are reviving "Red Scare" tactics like those employed by former Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
"It's not an accident," Suckling said.
With the Center for Biological Diversity, Bishop and Westerman are instead interested in its relationship with the government of Japan's southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. The center has worked with both American and Japanese environmental groups to oppose the relocation of a Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa, a priority of both the U.S. and Japanese governments.
The center, which focuses its work on endangered species, has found itself aligned with the the local Okinawan government in opposition to the base relocation over worries it will further imperil a marine mammal called the Okinawa dugong, which is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“Our work is to enforce American environmental laws,” Suckling said. “So how can it be that we're supposedly following some foreign interests when our whole work is to uphold American law and policy?”
The NRDC and Center for Biological Diversity, which both first received oversight letters in June, have taken different tacks in response. NRDC answered some of the committee's preliminary question while the center has so far refused send over any documents.
"Hold a hearing," Suckling said. "We will testify under oath so that the American public can see everything happening here."
Bishop and Westerman have yet to do that, or to submit subpoenas for the documents. Committee spokeswoman Kristina Baum said the panel “can assess should we receive the requested information from the groups.”
“We’re hopeful they will be cooperative,” she added.
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— Day 2 on the Hill for Kavanaugh: During the second day of questioning on Wednesday, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh hinted he may want to revisit if confirmed a doctrine important to environmental regulations called Chevron deference. The legal doctrine, stemming from a 1984 Supreme Court case involving the oil company, says that where there is ambiguity in the law courts should defer to federal agencies for interpretation.
“I’ve heard it said that I’m a skeptic of regulation,” he said. “I’m not a skeptic of regulation at all. I’m a skeptic of unauthorized regulation, of illegal regulation, of regulation that is outside the bounds of what the laws passed by Congress have said.” Similarly, Trump's first pick to the court, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, has argued more explicitly against Chevron deference for years in legal opinions.
Kavanaugh defended his record on environmental issues in general, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that in "environmental cases, in some cases I've ruled against environmentalist interest and in many cases I've ruled for environmentalist interest." For example, Kavanaugh referred to his opinion in Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, a case in which the court rejected the “affirmative defense” for emissions of pollutants from cement makers.
— Pruitt is gone, but news about his spending at the EPA is not: Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s trip to Italy cost taxpayers thousands more than what had previously been reported. The cost for Pruitt’s trip last year is $164,200, up $44,000 from the previously reported figure, according to agency information released as part of a public records request to the Environmental Integrity Project. The trip costs include $10,067 for a motorcade and $5,841 in hotel rooms for drivers at a five-star hotel, per the report.
— Premature death estimates impact power plan popularity: The EPA’s own assessment that its new power plan would lead to 1,400 premature deaths per year have made it less popular with voters, according to a recent poll released by Politico and Morning Consult. The survey found 45 percent of respondents said they were either “somewhat more” or “much more” likely to oppose the proposed plan given the estimates about increased deaths.
— One for the birds: Eight Democratic state attorneys general, led by New York’s Barbara Underwood, filed a suit Wednesday against the Trump administration in an effort to overturn a rollback of protections for migratory birds. The move follows the Trump administration’s guidance reinterpreting the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act to make it more difficult to hold companies that kill birds accountable. The lawsuit “is an effort to stop the Interior Department from fully implementing a directive to its law enforcement division to forgive mass bird kills, even when the animals are threatened or endangered,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.
— In other news from New York: State officials there announced they will use the nearly $128 million they received from Volkswagen’s settlement over its emissions cheating scandal to fund transportation initiatives. “Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the funds will increase the number of electric vehicles across the state, leading to a reduction in air pollution in urban areas,” the Associated Press reports.
— Outspoken critic of the Endangered Species Act goes to Interior Department: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently hired Robert Gordon, who has advocated for changes to the Endangered Species Act, to fill a senior position in the department. Gordon, now a deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, “has fought for decades while in positions both in an out of government to change the ESA,” The Hill reports. In a major report for the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, Gordon wrote before leaving for his government role that the ESA’s cost is "much larger than generally acknowledged, and likely measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars… Unfortunately, the ESA’s poor record of recovering species does not indicate that we are getting what we pay for.”
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Latest group of simulations from European model bring Hurricane #Florence uncomfortably close to East Coast next week. Still a week-plus away- which is an eternity in forecasting. More: https://t.co/eTFa2uGhzy pic.twitter.com/dIc5BKYahB— Capital Weather Gang (@capitalweather) September 5, 2018
— Storm watch: All eyes have been on Gordon, the tropical storm that made landfall near the Alabama-Mississippi border late Tuesday. But another storm in the Atlantic, the Category 4 Hurricane Florence swirling in the open ocean, could threaten the East Coast by early next week, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post. It’s the first major hurricane that has formed in the North Atlantic Ocean this season. “Florence isn’t an immediate concern — yet.” Cappucci writes, citing modeling. "There is a chance that Florence could become a big issue in just over a week."
Even though Gordon was downgraded to a tropical depression, the system will continue to “unleash a broad swath of heavy rainfall and flooding over the next few days," according to The Post’s Ian Livingston.
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- House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on perfluorinated chemicals.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on the nomination of Harold B. Parker to be the federal cochairperson of the Northern Border Regional Commission.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center and The Hill hold an event on bipartisan climate solutions with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).
- The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on implementing the Paris agreement.
- The United States Energy Association holds a membership briefing.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources on Environment holds a hearing on water resources on Friday.