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The Worst Environmentalists in the World

The New York chapter of the League of Conservation Voters is a cesspool of fossil fuel greenwashing.

Andy Sabin (center), is a billionaire Trump donor who supports fracking and opposes the EPA — and the honoree at last year's New York League of Conservation Voters gala. Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images for Hamptons Magazine

On Saturday, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) withdrew its support for a climate debate among Democratic primary candidates, the result of a strange little media kerfuffle.

One of the event’s cosponsors, the New Republic (full disclosure: I am at present writing for TNR), had published an article on Democratic primary candidate Pete Buttigieg that Twitter found to be in poor taste. Mayor Pete, as he’s popularly known, has been a particular favorite of rich, Wall Street donors, who view him as a capitalism-friendly alternative to Bernie Sanders. Whatever one thinks of the now-deleted essay, the LCV’s decision seemed odd, coming after TNR deleted the essay from its site with an apology. (TNR itself even withdrew as a sponsor of the climate debate, and the author of the offending piece, Dale Peck, a left-wing gay writer, has been permanently banned from the magazine’s pages.)

What kind of environmental group would prioritize the delicate sensibilities of Mayor Pete’s wealthy backers over debate among our leaders about how life on earth will survive the coming century? Answer: one that is deeply dependent on wealthy backers and the goodwill of neoliberal politicians.

Financiers are well represented on the national LCV board. Its chair is Carol Browner of the centrist Center for American Progress. LCV’s VP of governmental affairs, Tiernan Sittenfeld, once gushed to John Podesta in an email that she would “love” to work in the Hillary Clinton administration. Most of their contributions go to moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Bill Nelson, Kyrsten Sinema, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke — the kind of people who have been mostly an obstacle to environmental progress.

Still, the LCV has also supported some better liberals like Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown, and it deserves credit for robust support over the years of Rep. Ed Markey, a longtime climate fighter, who coauthored the Green New Deal legislation with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. LCV has also done some good work fighting the worst excesses of the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry, from battling the Keystone Pipeline to resisting funding cuts to the EPA, and it supports the Green New Deal.

The LCV’s New York affiliate, however, one of its most important, especially at a time of so much potential progress on climate issues, should be reviled and shunned by even the most half-assed environmentalists. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of capital and demonstrably more dedicated to protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry and the 1 percent than those of the planet.

Two board members of the New York LCV work as lobbyists for the Williams Companies, the Tulsa-based energy company trying to gain approval for a pipeline off the Rockaways, reports LittleSis, a publication of the nonprofit world watchdog Public Accountability Initiative that has been researching LCV. Grassroots environmentalists oppose that pipeline because fracking exacerbates climate change and pollutes human drinking water; they’re also concerned about the project’s likely devastation of marine wildlife around New York City. (Jacobin reported in May on some of the good people protesting this project.)

One of the board members, Mike Klein, is the founder of Urban Strategies, a firm that lobbies for Williams. Klein was paid more than a quarter of a million dollars for his work on behalf of Williams in 2017 and 2018, and he has continued lobbying for the company into 2019. Another NYLCV board member, Evan Thies, also a partner in Urban Strategies, is directly involved in lobbying for Williams.

While lobbyist filings are often vague, using phrases like “energy issues,” says Derek Seidman of the Public Accountability Initiative, a Williams filing from 2017 that lists Urban Strategies gets more specific: “Issues Related to Natural Gas Pipelines and Hydraulic Fracturing Issues.”

Klein and Thies aren’t the only NYLCV board members lobbying for fossil fuel infrastructure projects opposed by more serious environmentalists. Christian DiPalermo is a longtime lobbyist for Spectra Energy (which is now called Enbridge), the company seeking to build the Algonquin Gas Transmission through New York State as part of Atlantic Bridge, a much-criticized pipeline system. The hardly radical Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has called Atlantic Bridge a “serious threat“ to wildlife, wetlands, and the quality of drinking water for millions of New Yorkers.

Other NYLCV members have even more intimate ties to the fossil fuel industry. Michelle Hook is vice president of public affairs for Danskammer Energy, which owns a power plant in the Hudson Valley and has been trying to get a new natural gas facility approved in the area. The company describes the new facility as “green,” but many in the region are unconvinced, pointing out that the project uses fracked gas and would greatly increase emissions of methane and carbon monoxide, thus contradicting new state climate goals and contributing to air pollution, which already causes high rates of asthma among children in the Hudson Valley.

The project been opposed by many elected officials in Newburgh, where it would be located, and has drawn protests. Several local village boards, including in Cold Spring and Philipstown, have passed resolutions against the facility, the Highlands Current, a local paper there, reports.

Hook is also a spokesperson for Millennium Pipeline, the company that owns the Valley Lateral Pipeline, which was strongly opposed by grassroots climate advocates. Three other LCV board members have worked for Millennium Pipeline, two as lobbyists and one as the company’s lawyer in its fight with the state to build the Valley Lateral Pipeline. The project will imperil water quality by running through twenty-three wetlands. When New York State blocked the Valley Lateral Pipeline in 2017 (a decision unfortunately overridden by a federal judge last year), citing the company’s failure to consider the project’s climate change effects, NRDC exulted, calling it a “victory for all New Yorkers.”

But the ties between Millennium Pipeline and LCV go even deeper. Millennium is a “corporate partner” of the LCV along with other noted tree huggers ExxonMobil, Con Edison, National Grid — and yes, Williams.

All this allows companies to greenwash by appearing to have relationships with a well-known environmental group. Worse, these relationships inhibit LCV from playing a more significant role in fighting the climate change and pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, they sometimes help to airbrush these horrors: LCV has not only failed to oppose the Williams pipeline but has endorsed it as having environmental benefits, Politico has reported.

Then there’s Wall Street. NYLCV education fund secretary Val Smith is managing director and global head of corporate sustainability for Citi, a job title that is essentially a bad joke, since Citi is the third biggest financier of the fossil fuel industry.

The political ties of the LCV are even more shocking than the corporate ones. You’d expect the board members of a corporate-friendly environmental group to be made up of those whom Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf has called “soft climate denialists” — e.g., centrist Democrats — rather than the hard climate denialists of the proudly anti-scientific GOP. But NYLCV’s board includes backers of Donald Trump, whose environmental record is probably the worst of any American president in history.

Ed Cox, chair of the board of directors of NYLCV’s education fund, just joined the Trump campaign. And the big honoree at the NYLCV’s spring gala last year – also one of their board members – was Andy Sabin, a billionaire Trump donor who supports fracking and opposes serious environmental regulation, believing the EPA is guilty of “overreach.” Sabin was also a donor to Ryan Zinke, Trump’s disgraced former interior secretary.

The LCV, in Saturday’s statement about the climate debate, declared its decision to be “in line with its values.” That’s fair: choosing to soothe the feelings of the shameless fossil fuel profiteers on Wall Street over fighting for the survival of the 99 percent does seem congruent with at least some of the organization’s “values.”

Luckily, the climate debate will go on despite the LCV’s calculations. Let’s hope the same can be said for the planet.