When the mainstream media need someone to sound off against the dark money networks fueling support for the oil and gas industry, they often turn to the innocuous-sounding Energy and Policy Institute. What goes unmentioned is that the self-described pro-renewables "watchdog" operates so deep in the shadows, it technically doesn’t even exist.
At first glance, the Energy and Policy Institute seems like a run-of-the-mill think tank whose mission is to "expose attacks on renewable energy and counter misinformation by fossil fuel and utility interests." But scratch beneath the surface and the group starts to resemble the shady "front-groups" it targets. Its incorporation status allows it to conceal its owners and funders, and its staff is full of veterans of the same renewable energy industry that stands to benefit from the research it promotes.
Regardless, the mainstream media treats the institute like any other think tank, quoting its work in hundreds of news articles since 2015.
The Energy and Policy Institute is not the first shadowy progressive group to violate its own ethical stances. Common Cause, which advocates against dark money and foreign influence in politics, has taken millions from a Swiss billionaire who has been accused of illegally meddling in American politics, the Washington Free Beacon reported. The Global Disinformation Index, which slams conservative media outlets that conceal their funding sources, has worked to keep its own donors and leaders shrouded in secrecy.
Unlike most think tanks, the Energy and Policy Institute is not a nonprofit—nor is it registered as a for-profit business. The group is technically an "unincorporated association," which means it is not bound to the strict lobbying and political spending limitations and financial disclosure requirements that standard nonprofit groups must follow. Nor does it need to file corporate registration records that would disclose its owners.
But that hasn’t stopped the media from treating it like an unbiased policy shop. A Jan. 2023 Washington Post article, "How dark money groups led Ohio to redefine gas as ‘green energy,’" includes a critical quote from the group’s policy and communications manager Dave Anderson. Anderson, an alum of the environmental activist Sierra Club, criticizes lawmakers who "coordinated with a natural gas industry group" to craft what he says is a "misleading" new law.
The Post does not mention that progressive lawmakers regularly rely on the Energy and Policy Institute to help advance their environmental bills.
In January, Kentucky state lawmakers introduced a bill to regulate utility companies that aligned with recommendations laid out by the Energy and Policy Institute. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), who once said dark money poses an existential threat to democracy, cited the group’s research in a June 2021 letter demanding the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission change its accounting rules to prevent energy utilities from secretly funding lobbying groups.
The Energy and Policy Institute discloses no information on its location, owners, or funders on its website. Its "about" page, typically the place for information about an organization's funding, includes nothing more than a mission statement, the names of a few staffers, and a land acknowledgment. "EPI’s staff live around the country, and we acknowledge that we live on the traditional, ancestral and potentially unceded homelands of Indigenous people," the group states.
Little is known about the Energy and Policy Institute’s sources of funding. However, one clue suggests the group is quietly funded by former Google CEO and Democratic billionaire donor Eric Schmidt.
Tax forms show that Schmidt’s private charity, the Schmidt Foundation, granted $4,321,250 to the Sustainable Markets Foundation in 2019, in part to support the Energy and Policy Institute.
But the Sustainable Markets Foundation, an environmentalist charity financed by major left-wing institutions including the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Tides Foundation, makes no reference to the Energy and Policy Institute in its tax filings.
Parker Thayer, an investigative researcher at the Capital Research Center, speculated that the Energy and Policy Institute may be a fiscally sponsored project of the Sustainable Markets Foundation. Such arrangements, Thayer explained, allow groups to operate in the shadows of an established nonprofit group while avoiding financial disclosures.
The Sustainable Markets Foundation has a history of fiscally sponsoring nebulous green energy investigative operations. The Climate Investigations Center, whose research on climate issues was relied on by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, is one such group sponsored by the Sustainable Markets Foundation, the Free Beacon reported.
The Energy and Policy Institute, the Sustainable Markets Foundation, and the Schmidt Foundation did not return requests for comment.