Interior Dept. Nominee Helped Steer Millions to Environmentalist Groups

Could potentially obstruct energy projects in new role

Rhea Suh / AP
December 19, 2013

A nominee for a top post at the Interior Department helped create a financing apparatus that has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the nation’s most prominent environmentalist groups.

President Barack Obama nominated Rhea Suh in October to lead Interior’s fish and wildlife and parks division, which oversees the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Suh has been Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget since 2009. Before joining the administration, she worked at a number of left-wing foundations whose support for radical environmentalist groups has some senators concerned that she would work to stymie fossil fuel production if confirmed.

"Given your lifetime of funding activist groups opposing natural gas production, how can the members of this committee suddenly expect you to change your views if you’re confirmed?" asked Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) at a confirmation hearing on Monday.

Suh would not have direct control over federal policy as it relates to natural gas extraction. However, she could obstruct energy projects in other ways by, for example, classifying species as endangered.

"This is not a position to which you’ve been nominated to promote any movement," Barrasso added, "so I question whether this is really the right position for you given your deeply held views."

Suh worked at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation from 1998 to 2007. In that role, according to her official biography, she created the foundation’s energy program.

Since she assumed that position, Hewlett has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to environmentalist groups, many of which vehemently oppose the use of natural gas or common means of extracting it.

Suh herself said in a 2007 interview that natural gas is the "single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West."

The Hewlett Foundation has given out more than $600 million in grant money since 2000 to support groups that include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society. All oppose hydraulic fracturing, an innovative technique for extracting oil and natural gas from rock formations.

Hewlett’s largest grants are to other foundations. The Energy Foundation, for example, has received more than $130 million in Hewlett grant money since 2001.

Hal Harvey, the Energy Foundation’s founder and former president, left the group and joined Hewlett in 2001, the same year the grant money started flowing.

Harvey was Suh’s boss. She also described him as a "mentor." He left Hewlett in 2008 to found the ClimateWorks Foundation. Hewlett subsequently gave ClimateWorks more than $330 million.

When Suh left Hewlett in 2007, she joined the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which also provided seed money for ClimateWorks—about $185 million between 2008 and 2011. It has also given nearly $70 million to the Energy Foundation.

Additionally, Hewlett has given $22 million to the Tides Foundation since 2005. Tides provides grants to a who’s who of liberal activist groups, including organizations that vehemently oppose fracking.

Tides, Hewlett, Packard, and the Energy Foundation have together given the Sierra Club and the NRDC, two of the most prominent anti-fracking groups in the country, more than $32 million since 2000. A host of smaller environmentalist groups got millions more.

Suh told the committee that she had worked at various foundations "to enable a broader suite of voices to be heard in the conservation movement."

"I focused my efforts on ensuring those voices of local communities would be heard and balanced against the voices that were just coming from Washington, D.C," she said.

Hewlett did give millions in grants to Washington-based groups, and the vast majority of its grants have gone to organizations in D.C., Los Angeles, and the Bay area.

"Putting someone in a position of power who would focus on an anti-natural gas agenda could ultimately harm that progress," Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member David Vitter (R., La.) said in an emailed statement.

"The science has shown [fracking is] safe, and it’s clearly the brightest spot in our otherwise slumping economy," Vitter said.