The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is raising new questions about the relationship between non-profit environmental groups and foreign entities in influencing U.S. policy.

This week, Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) sent a letter to Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen requesting additional documentation and information regarding the group’s relationship with foreign actors in Japan.  The inquiry relates to Earthjustice’s alleged efforts to thwart plans by the U.S. Department of Defense to move the location of a military base on Okinawa.

“Foreign members of the anti-base coalition represented by Earthjustice appear to have already engaged in extensive political activity within the United States, including lobbying government officials and holding media events designed to influence public opinion,” Bishop and Westerman wrote.

The Committee also sent a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in June asking for similar background on their connections to foreign government officials and actors who are against the U.S. military presence on the island. Earthjustice is providing legal representation to CBD and a coalition of Japanese activists in their campaign to stop the base relocation.

Discussions to move the base to a more sparsely populated area began in the mid-1990s.  In 2003, Earthjustice filed suit to prevent the building of the new base, as they alleged construction would “negatively impact habitat for the dugong, a marine mammal.”

“Earthjustice claimed that by virtue of the dugong’s cultural significance under Japanese law, it was ‘equivalent’ to being listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and therefore protected the species under the NHPA,” notes Bishop and Westerman’s letter.

In August, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Department of Defense, concluding that it was “unlikely” that the relocation would harm the dugong.  However, an attorney for Earthjustice intimated that the group may appeal the ruling or continue to “block, restrict, or delay” the move.

Bishop and Westerman cite several instances of the coalition attempting to influence public opinion and engaging in political activity in the U.S.  In one instance, a foreign delegation met with representatives from a member of the U.S. Senate and House.  In another, the delegation also traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with lawmakers and trade organizations.

Bishop’s letter also raises the question of compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires groups or persons who are acting “at the…request…of a foreign principal” or whose actions are “supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized” by a foreign principal to register with the Department of Justice.

“The purpose of FARA is to ensure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws,” cites the letter.

While FARA provides an exception for domestic attorneys representing foreign groups in legal proceedings, that does not apply to activities outside the courtroom.

This is not the first inquiry made into the idea of foreign actors utilizing U.S. based environmental groups to influence policy.

Bishop and Westerman have also raised similar concerns about the relationship between the Natural Resources Defense Council and China’s Communist Party. It’s been widely reported that China uses financial incentives for third party groups like think tanks, universities and non-profits in exchange for promoting a more pro-Chinese viewpoint.

“The Committee is concerned about the NRDC’s role in aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in ways that may be detrimental to the United States,” wrote Bishop and Westerman in a June letter.  “The NRDC’s relationship with China has many of the criteria identified by U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement as putting an entity at risk of being influenced or coerced by foreign interests.”

“The NRDC’s ability to work in China is dependent on the goodwill of the Chinese government.  The NRDC leadership regularly meets with senior Chinese and Communist Party officials.  NRDC press releases, blog posts, and reports consistently praise the Chinese government’s environmental initiatives and promote the image of China as a global environmental leader,” the letter continues.

In contrast, NRDC has taken prolific legal action against the U.S. government.  One example of said litigation that Bishop cites includes a suit aiming to limit the ability of the U.S. Navy to conduct training exercises in the Pacific region, because technology like sonar may harm marine life.

In the instances of both Earthjustice and NRDC, Bishop and Westerman requested documents denoting payments and interactions between the respective group and its foreign counterpart as well as documents that show compliance with FARA.