A letter reportedly being circulated among a handful of Democrats this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, calling for an investigation into energy companies’ opinions on climate change, references news reports that the letter’s authors characterize as independent journalism. But according to online records, the reports were actually financed by large foundations that oppose oil and natural gas development.
Fewer than two dozen Democratic members of the U.S. House have signed on to a letter circulated by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), which cites “investigations by the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News” that accused at least one U.S. oil and natural gas company of “financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.” Congressman Lieu’s office says it will send the letter “in a few weeks,” which means it wouldn’t be delivered until after the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Contrary to the letter’s suggestion, the LA Times merely published the investigations that were cited. They were not authored by reporters from the LA Times, but rather by a group of researchers affiliated with the Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship at the Columbia School of Journalism, which was disclosed at the end of the two reports.
But what was not revealed in the pages of the LA Times is who provided funding for the reports. According to the Fellowship’s website, the program receives funding from a number of anti-fossil fuel foundations:
“The program is supported by the Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation.” (emphasis added)
As well-documented in a 2014 oversight report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) actively backs campaigns to ban oil and natural gas development, including major financing for the activist group 350.org, which environmental activist Bill McKibben co-founded. RBF’s support for 350.org and its anti-fossil fuel campaigns is significant, as McKibben himself called RBF a “great ally.”
According to RBF’s website, the Fund supports efforts to “reduce reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources.”
As Energy In Depth reported last year, RBF also provides funding for InsideClimate News, an activist organization that shares numerous funding sources with extreme anti-fossil fuel groups, such as Food & Water Watch and Earthworks. David Sassoon, the publisher for InsideClimate News, used to do work for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. According to the New York Times, InsideClimate News is “an outgrowth of Mr. Sassoon’s consulting work for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic group that emphasizes climate policy.”
One of the board members at InsideClimate News, Michael Northrup, directs the Sustainable Development grantmaking program at RBF. According to InsideClimate News’ website, Northrup “provided the seed grant that got InsideClimate News started in 2007.”
According to Inside Philanthropy, RBF is “not afraid to get involved in a political fight or take a few risks with its grantmaking.” Inside Philanthropy’s summary of RBF’s climate-related grants previously disclosed the extent of its advocacy against fossil fuels, though the following paragraph has since been scrubbed from its page (accessed via the Internet Archive):
“RBF is not afraid of a fight, and it has been a supporter lately of efforts to block the Keystone XL pipeline. For instance, it gave $50,000 to the League of Conservation Voters in 2013 to educate voters on the issues around Keystone and has addressed the broader threat posed by tar sands oil through a half-million-dollar grant to the Sierra Club Foundation. In the past few years, RBF also has been a major funder of 350.org — a group at the forefront of the Keystone fight and other activist efforts to raise awareness about climate change.” (emphasis added)
The Columbia fellows did not disclose in their two-part report that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund were financial supporters of their work. InsideClimate News lists RBF as one of its financial supporters on its “Our Funders” page.
In a 2014 report, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online newspaper, detailed how environmental foundations have created their own “echo chamber” by funding advocacy groups and the news outlets to cover those groups’ activities:
“Wealthy foundations fighting oil and gas extraction around the country have incorporated ostensibly dispassionate news outlets into their grant-making portfolios, creating what some describe as a self-sustaining environmentalist echo chamber.
“Observers see a pattern at work: A handful of wealthy foundations fund environmental activist groups, news organizations to report on the activists’ activities, and groups that then push out those news reports.
“The perception of a critical mass of public voices on key environmental issues is frequently picked up by more established news organizations.”
The Free Beacon cited the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as one such foundation, noting its financial support for InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity, and a number of other groups that campaign against oil and natural gas development.
Several RBF-backed groups, including 350.org, have used the reports from InsideClimate News and Columbia fellows to call for government investigations. InsideClimate News has covered those activities extensively.
The financial ties to anti-fossil fuel advocacy raise significant questions about the objectivity of the reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times. Yet the funding of these advocacy pieces may only be the beginning.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rep. Ted Lieu – the author of the letter calling for an investigation of energy companies’ climate-related activities – has received $1,000 in campaign contributions from the RBF-backed League of Conservation Voters (LCV). Since 2008, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the co-author of the letter, has accepted over $3,000 from LCV and the Sierra Club, another group backed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.