WASHINGTON — American lawmakers are probing whether Russian oil money is funding anti-oil protest movements in North America, including environmental groups that have fought pipeline projects for Canada's oilsands.
A U.S. House of Representatives committee already probing the question sent letters last week to online giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google, asking for data for any Russian purchases of anti-oil and anti-fracking ads.
This comes after the same committee requested a deeper investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department about donations from an alleged Russian-linked offshore entity, which provided tens of millions to a set of donors, which later funded smaller environmental groups.
''Russia's meddling in the U.S. energy market is well documented in the public domain,'' said the letters sent Tuesday to the social-media companies by Lamar Smith, Republican chairman of the U.S. House committee on science, space and technology.
''U.S. presidential candidates, European officials, and the U.S. intelligence community have all publicly noted evidence of Russia and its government corporations funding a covert anti-fracking campaign.''
That's a reference to statements from former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton — Clinton warned during a 2014 appearance in Canada about ''phoney environmental groups ... funded by the Russians.''
There is a charged partisan context for this investigation.
The issue is tied not only to the battle over climate change, but also the question of Russian meddling in American affairs. While many lawmakers, especially Democrats, are keen to uncover Russian links to the Trump campaign, here Republicans are looking to expose its potential ties to America's environmental left.
The social-media question is now entering the conversation.
The catalyst came with revelations from the multiple investigations into Russian election-meddling: last month Facebook revealed that Russian accounts purchased US$100,000 in ads for the American election. That was followed by data from Twitter about impostor accounts from Russia.
The ads being purchased have reportedly involved issues that deeply divide Americans. Social-media companies have been briefing members of Congress on the content of Russian-funded election material — and reports say the material involves Islam and terrorism; Black Lives Matter; and NFL protests during the national anthem.
Smith's committee now wants data on environmental ads. It's seeking material provided from Russia dating back to 2010, and has requested that the material in question be delivered by Oct. 10.
This comes three months after he another Republican committee chair requested a broader investigation. They sent a letter to the Treasury Department requesting an examination of Russian backing for anti-oil causes.
The June letter raised one specific example of a Bermuda-based corporation that shared a physical address with another company that had several ties to wealthy Russians and executives for Russian oil companies.
IRS filings show that same Bermuda-based company, Klein Ltd., gave $23 million to large environmental donor Sea Change Foundation in 2010 and 2011. That sum represents about one-third of what the San Francisco-based Sea Change received in donations those years.
Sea Change, in turn, has been an important donor to a variety of environmental causes. For example, it has donated several million to the Tides Foundation — although that sum is a small fraction of the overall revenue for Tides, which according to U.S. tax filings donated almost US$104 million in 2012 and almost $113 million in 2013.
In the case of Tides, the California-based group donated to a variety of environmental causes, including several that have fought Canadian oil pipelines like Keystone XL: the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defence Council, the Sierra Club, and Bold Nebraska.
Its U.S. tax filings contain scores of references to contributions spent in Canada and Mexico. Its U.S. contributions include numerous grants like $75,000 for Bold Nebraska in 2014, and $117,000 to the Sierra Club in 2012.
A Keystone XL opponent called the committee's work ridiculous. Bold Nebraska's Jane Kleeb accused the Republican party of fighting environmentalists while covering up the real Russia scandal — the foreign help electing President Donald Trump.
''I have nothing to say about witch hunts,'' Kleeb said.
''The Republicans are giving cover to Russia, who hacked our elections. While they engage in witch hunts on people who dare to go up against Big Oil and other corporations they protect.''
The original donor being targeted by the committee has called the allegations against it ''completely false and irresponsible.'' A lawyer for Bermuda-based Klein Ltd., Roderick Forest, denied in an email to the Washington Times the committee chair's characterization of it as a pass-through for foreign funds: ''We can state categorically that at no point did this philanthropic organization receive or expend funds from Russian sources or Russian-connected sources and Klein has no Russian connection whatsoever.''
The U.S. intelligence community has stated its belief that the Russian government wants to reduce American energy production.
It included that assessment in a report on election-meddling, ordered by Barack Obama, and released in its unclassified version this January. The report pointed to one example of the state-backed network Russia Today running anti-fracking programming.
The unclassified report said: ''This is likely reflective of the Russian government's concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to (Russia's) Gazprom's profitability.''
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press