As Mitt Romney understood all too well, Vladimir Putin has long sought to interfere with domestic American politics. Years before Donald Trump came down that escalator and Hillary Clinton’s staff was tricked into giving up its e-mail passwords, Russia was pouring millions of dollars into anti-fracking campaigns across Europe and the U.S.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique in which high-pressure liquids are blasted into rock, allowing for the extraction of oil and natural gas that was previously impossible to reach. The technology is the main reason that the U.S. has moved toward energy independence in recent years, and it could potentially allow Europe to break its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. Which, naturally, makes it a threat to the Kremlin’s interests.
In 2012, Bulgaria issued a shale-gas license to Chevron. Immediately, activists pounced, peddling hyperbolic warnings that fracking pollutes drinking water. (In reality, the practice carries a minimal risk of groundwater pollution when done properly.) Protests erupted, and the Bulgarian government caved, banning fracking entirely. Gazprom, Russia’s state-run energy company, proceeded to give the Bulgarian government a 20 percent discount for signing a ten-year contract for the provision of natural gas.
One year later, Romania fell victim to a similar campaign, believed to be spearheaded by Putin. The Pungesti commune, in the northwest, “became a magnet for activists from across the country opposed to hydraulic fracturing,” the New York Times reported. Russia “is playing a dirty game” to “keep this energy dependence,” concluded Iulian Iancu, the chairman of the Romanian Parliament’s industry committee.
And why wouldn’t it? European countries that are dependent on Russian oil and natural gas — especially those in the east — help keep Russia’s economy, and thus Putin’s regime, afloat. Gazprom supplies 30 percent of the European Union’s natural gas, which means that the Kremlin has the power to turn off much of Europe’s energy supply at any time. In fact, it already did so once, during the coldest months of 2009.
In 2014, after multiple European countries banned fracking following protests, NATO secretary general Fogh Anders Rasmussen warned that “Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas.”
We know that Rasmussen’s warnings were heard across the Atlantic, because even Hillary Clinton echoed them. At a private speaking event in 2016, she recalled that during her time in the State Department:
We were up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand up against any effort, “Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you,” and a lot of that money supporting that effort was coming from Russia.
Nothing has changed since Clinton was in office. While investigating Russian meddling in the November presidential election these past few months, the U.S. intelligence community found that Russia is concerned “about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market” and Gazprom’s “potential challenges” if other countries begin fracking.
In 2015 alone, the intelligence community found that RT, Russia’s state-run media outlet, produced over 60 anti-fracking stories. “There are a lot of studies that say fracking is dangerous,” one RT segment began, “So why do you think some countries and companies think it’s worth the risk?” RT conveniently left out the fact that over 60 percent of Russian exports are oil and natural gas, and that countries that “risk” fracking would no longer be dependent on the Kremlin.
In addition to peddling anti-fracking propaganda in the U.S., Russia is allegedly using an offshore shell company to directly fund American environmental groups. On June 29, Republican representatives Lamar Smith and Randy Weber wrote a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin demanding an investigation into the shell company:
According to the reports, entities connected to the Russian government are using a shell company registered in Bermuda, Klein Ltd. (Klein), to funnel tens of millions of dollars to a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) private foundation, the Sea Change Foundation (Sea Change). This money appears to move in the form of anonymous donations. Sea Change then passes the money originating in Russia to various U.S. 501(c)(3) organizations such as the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and others. These funds are dispersed as grants that will be used to execute a political agenda driven by Russian entities. The purpose of this circuitous exchange of foreign funds is to shield the source of the money.
Before it was revealed publicly, members of the Sierra Club, et al., were likely clueless that Putin and the Russians had been funding their anti-fracking initiatives. The protesters in Bulgaria in 2012, and the protesters in Romania in 2013, were also likely clueless. But the truth is out now, and Secretary Mnuchin ought to immediately open an investigation into Russian ties to anti-fracking campaigns across the country. Otherwise, the Kremlin’s meddling in our domestic affairs will continue apace.