Environmental Activists Pushed Chinese-Friendly Policies with Obama Administration

Green group denies need to register as foreign agent

Getty Images
February 16, 2019

State Department email records show that environmental activists who have denied operating as foreign agents in response to congressional inquiries partnered with Obama administration officials to advance climate change policies that were beneficial to China and detrimental to the United States, according to energy policy analysts and attorneys who have reviewed the electronic correspondence.

The World Resources Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development, was one of several environmental advocacy groups that received letters from the House Natural Resources Committee in 2018 inquiring about their relationship with China's government and the impact this relationship has had on their political activism.

The letters, signed by then-Chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R., Ark.), who chaired the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, also asked the environmental groups if they followed foreign agent registration requirements.

Bishop and Westerman asked WRI in their Sept. 5, 2018 letter addressed to WRI President Andrew Steer to either provide documentation showing that the group had registered as a foreign agent or to explain why it did not see fit to register. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, "persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity" are required "to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities."

The letters detailing potential violations of FARA were also sent to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Earthjustice. To date, none of the green groups that were the subject of the committee's correspondence have agreed to register and all deny operating as foreign agents.

Bishop and Westerman noted in an Oct. 17, 2018 letter to WRI following up on their initial inquiries that WRI had denied its relationship with the Chinese government impacted its political activism to the point where it would be required to register under FARA. However, the committee had obtained "communications" between WRI and "senior U.S. government officials" that suggest WRI has been operating to influence U.S. policy at behest of Chinese government officials, the letter explained.

The Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that favors free market policies in the energy sector, has obtained email records from the U.S. State Department providing further insight into WRI's actions in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the group filed against the agency this past August.

The suit was filed after the department failed to respond to a FOIA request filed in June asking for documents and correspondence that would provide insight into WRI's relationship with China's government. IER began receiving FOIA documents responsive to its information request in December.

Policy analysts and attorneys skeptical of the World Resources Institute's denial that they are working on behalf of foreign powers highlighted several emails between WRI staff and Obama State Department officials.

One such email is dated April 15, 2015. It was sent by Jennifer Morgan, a former global director for WRI's climate program, to Todd Stern, a State Department special envoy for climate change, and Clare Sierawski, a chief of staff in the office of the special envoy for climate change.

Morgan explained in the email that she was "approached" by a Chinese government entity to "pursue a dialogue" that would bring together U.S. and Chinese officials.

"We think the interest stems from the Chinese recognition that this Administration is coming to an end soonish and their desire to open up channels in DC that are additional to the ones that are working well now," Morgan wrote in the email. "As you will see, they are also interested in longer-term ideas that one could imagine being discussed with the next Administration (depending of course who it might be)."

Morgan also named some of Chinese agents whom she expects to be in on the conversations.

In another message from Morgan dated April 28, 2015, addressed to Stern with Sierawski and WRI officials copied, Morgan discusses "a first in-person opportunity to engage with the Chinese experts directly" during a meeting of the World Bank scheduled a few weeks later on May 20, 2015, in Washington D.C. "The current plan is to have a more technical exchange on national actions and a more detailed discussion about future collaboration," Morgan said in her message.

The Chinese delegation would be attending the World Bank meeting to present their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to upcoming climate change agreements, Morgan told Stern.

The email records demonstrate that Obama State Department officials devoted considerable time, attention and public resources toward assisting Morgan and WRI in their efforts to assist China's climate advocacy, Chris Horner, an attorney with Government Accountability and Oversight, told the Free Beacon.

"Morgan boasted in friendly quarters, in writing, that her group WRI had been approached by China," said Horner, who filed the FOIA lawsuit on behalf of IER. "WRI then got to work immediately, even seeking the Obama State Department's assistance, where she found receptive allies. However much or little WRI/Morgan considered they were working as China's agent, even if they viewed it merely as helping out fellow travelers by sharing the abundance of access on behalf of friends, the plain reading of a dozen or more documents clearly suggests such a relationship."

"WRI's overtures in very high places prompted State to scramble its China team to convene with Morgan to assist WRI's project on behalf of the Chinese, and led to WRI matchmaking Obama officials with Chinese officials eager to help make sure the climate train that they had, together, gotten to run so well, kept on chugging," Horner said.

The United Nation's Paris Agreement, which calls on participating countries to curb their carbon dioxide emissions, figured prominently in the discussions between Morgan, Stern, and other State Department officials. Morgan indicated in her April 15 that Chinese operatives were looking for an opportunity "share ideas around the Paris Agreement" and to recruit think tanks in the U.S. for the purpose of examining what "different approaches or packages could look like for Paris."

Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, said this demonstrates how Chinese operatives worked through compliant U.S. activists to constrain American energy and American power.

"The Chinese government has every interest in seeing U.S. fossil-fuel energy production curtailed and seeks American partners willing to do their bidding," he said. "WRI is just such a partner. Emails obtained through FOIA requests clearly show WRI collaborating with Obama State Department officials in support of the Paris climate agreement to limit U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions while WRI simultaneously praises China's largely non-existent environmental achievements."

The Free Beacon attempted to contact Morgan, who is now the executive director of Greenpeace International, to ask if she would like to comment on the FOIA records and if she had any concerns about FARA requirements. As of Wednesday, a press representative with Greenpeace International, who acknowledged the Free Beacon's inquiry, did not provide any comments from Morgan.

Stern, the former Obama State Department official who was addressed in Morgan's emails, is now a distinguished fellow with WRI. A spokesperson for the environmental advocacy group said in an email message that, "Any accusation that WRI is a foreign agent is completely without merit."

The Free Beacon sent a media inquiry into the State Department and asked if the department would like to comment on the FOIA results and the lawsuit. In response, a State Department spokesperson said on background, "The Department does not comment on pending FOIA cases." The Free Beacon pointed out to the spokesperson that this particular FOIA case had been settled and that the department should be free to offer a comment. However, the spokesperson did not provide any additional quotes. 

Tom Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, said WRI is working against American interests.

"The American public should be gravely concerned at the revelation that the Obama State Department and World Resource Institute officials worked in tandem to advance China's energy policy preferences," he said.

Pyle also criticized WRI for providing cover for China to feign compliance with U.N. climate agreements while working to impose restrictions on U.S. energy use.

"It is no secret that China has an agenda to keep up appearances of meeting the Paris Agreement while still reaping the benefits of fossil fuel use," he said. "Any advantage they can get over the U.S. they will pursue by all means necessary. We must get to the bottom of how the Obama State Department was complicit in these efforts and ensure that going forward the U.S. pursues energy policy best in line with our interests and not those of foreign or malicious actors."