Natural Resources Defense Council

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The Natural Resources Defense Council is a New York City-based environmental power and activist group. Its mission statement declares “NRDC’s purpose is to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends.” It concludes, “We seek to break down the pattern of disproportionate environmental burdens borne by people of color and others who face social or economic inequities. Ultimately, NRDC strives to help create a new way of life for humankind, one that can be sustained indefinitely without fouling or depleting the resources that support all life on Earth.” NRDC describes itself as the “nation’s most effective environmental action group.”

The Council works at the direction of approximately 30 trustees, including business moguls, Hollywood celebrities and other prominent Americans, including Laurence Rockefeller.

Money

  • Tax status: NRDC, 501(c)(3); affiliate NRDC Action Fund, 501(c)(4); the Environmental Accountability Fund (a 527 group) is a project of the NRDC Action Fund.
  • NRDC’s financial assets were $268.1 million in 2013.
  • NRDC’s total income is 2013 was $116 million.
  • NRDC’s investment portfolio income was $2.8 million in 2013.
  • NRDC Action Fund’s lobbying revenue in 2013 was $1.7 million.
  • NRDC spent $9,521,047 on lobbying 1989-2013.
  • NRDC Campaign Finance spending, 1989-2013, $1.6 million.

Power

  • NRDC holds or has held 50 positions on 40 Federal Advisory Committees.
  • NRDC operatives submitted regulatory recommendations to 256 federal dockets.
  • NRDC-paid congressional junkets: 40 trips to 10 destinations, all in Alaska. Thirteen travelers, 5 members of Congress (4 Democrats, 1 Republican), 8 staffers.
  • NRDC had 10 lobbyists that have also worked in a congressional office.
  • NRDC claims to have the “grassroots power” of 1.3 million individual members.
  • NRDC also claims to have the expertise of more than 350 professionals, including lawyers and scientists.

Network Interactions

See the NRDC Muckety Map for an interactive view of the organization’s social network. NRDC is, most notably, a partner with the Reality Coalition and a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.

Background & History

In the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation began a new concept in influencing public policy – funding public interest law centers. The Foundation decided to try out their strategy on environmental policy and resource conservation first. In 1970 it gave a conditional grant to a newly incorporated group called the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for $410,000. Ford subsequently gave similar grants to the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern California Center for Law in the Public Interest, which covered most of the field at the time.

Ironically, when NRDC received its grant, Ford had already been influencing the group all the way back to when it first thought about formally organizing. For over a year, Ford grant staffers had quietly been mixing with a number of outstanding students from Yale Law School who dreamed of foundation grants for their planned environmental watchdog organization with the legal power to bring lawsuits in the public interest. Six of the law students graduated in June of 1969, including John Adams, Richard Ayres, John Bryson, Edward Strohbehn, and Gus Speth. They each found temporary jobs, hoping that their environmental public interest law organization could get the necessary funding.

In February of 1970, without the knowledge of the Yale grads, Stephen Duggan, a partner at a New York law firm, along with four other well-established lawyers, incorporated Natural Resources Defense Council as a 501(c)3 organization in the State of New York. Duggan had great dreams of gathering professional and public support for his new group in an elaborate organizing conference and asked the Ford Foundation for a grant. To his shock, Ford rejected his request, not knowing it had other plans in mind.

A month later, the Ford Foundation put the group of Yale law graduates in the same room as the group of New York lawyers who had incorporated the Natural Resources Defense Council, and essentially forced a merger of the two parties. For two months, the two groups struggled to draft a common set of principles and strategies, and finally presented a grant proposal to Ford, which they accepted and granted $410,000 to the Natural Resources Defense Council as a startup grant to cover the Council’s first few years of operation.

But there was a problem. The NRDC grant was contingent on getting the IRS to issue a ruling that allowed tax-exempt organizations like the NRDC to engage in public interest litigation while maintaining their tax-exempt status. From the beginning, when the IRS began regulating public interest lobbying organizations, it held that they could not be tax exempt and therefore could not be funded by foundations. That had long been recognized as a barrier to the evolution of environmental public interest litigation when NRDC appeared on the scene. Even tax law changes in 1969 left unclear the tax exemption status of public interest law organizations that engage in litigation.

According to Environmental Public Interest Law Centers, by Steven Schindler, when the IRS temporarily gave a blanket rejection to all tax-exempt applications for public interest law organizations, environmental movement leaders such as the Sierra Club went into action – they were determined to put lawsuits on the tax-exempt map. NRDC was first in line, and their board of directors contacted powerful friends in the government, in the Republican Party, and editorial writers to pressure the IRS for its decision. In late 1970, both the New York Times and The Washington Post editorialized in favor of tax exemptions for public interest law organizations. The IRS took its time, but issued a new ruling that groups like NRDC could litigate and retain their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status by notifying their intent on their application and following a strict set of new rules. Finally, the conditional Ford Foundation grant was cleared for use.

NRDC litigation in federal and state courts has notably influenced enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, climate change rules and other federal and state laws that protect the environment while substantially undermining the industrial strength of the United States.

In 2001, NRDC launched the “BioGems Initiative,” a scare campaign to publicize “imperiled ecosystems,” encroaching on turf previously held by The Nature Conservancy and other land use-based environmental groups. NRDC also issued a scare report on the health effects arising from the September 11, 2001 attacks, ironically scanting the thousands of people who died in the catastrophes.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, NRDC vigorously cultivated tight relations with federal agencies, placing employees on Federal Advisory Committees and working alongside federal officials in rulemaking, particularly with the Environmental Protection Agency. The close, virtually incestuous NRDC/EPA relationship raised public concerns and came to the attention of the Government Accountability Office it its 2015 investigation of EPA’s violation of covert propaganda laws while promoting its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The GAO discovered that EPA propaganda was posted on an NRDC website touting a brewery alliance “partner” urging public support for the federal land-grab of WOTUS in order to “Make Great Beer!” Critics got a chuckle from NRDC pushing beer as a reason to support a federal rule that has prompted 28 states to file lawsuits against it.

There are reports of the NRDC receiving funding from a foundation said to have pass-through ties with groups invested in Russia’s state owned oil company and other Russian oil interests.

Leadership

Daniel R. Tishman is NRDC chairman of the board and fourth generation chairman and chief executive of the Tishman Construction Corporation and vice chairman of Tishman Hotel & Realty. Tishman Hotel & Realty properties include The Westin New York at Times Square, E Walk Retail on 42nd Street (Connected to the Westin), Walt Disney World Dolphin (Also owned by MetLife), Walt Disney World Swan (Also owned by Metlife), Hilton in the Walt Disney World Resort, Sheraton Chicago and Hotel Towers, and Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel.

Tishman’s company, unrelated to the commercial property retail management company, was the construction contractor for the One World Trade Center, successor to the two World Trade Center Towers destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The two previous World Trade Center towers were built by Daniel’s father’s firm, then named Tishman Realty & Construction.

Rhea Sun Suh is the current NRDC president, formerly an Obama appointee in the Department of the Interior. Suh was nominated for a higher position in the administration but was, ultimately, not confirmed by the Senate, primarily because her activism in the Environmental Grantmakers Association created an open door into the Administration to virtually any environmental group and because of her past employment, campaigning against natural gas as an employee of the Hewlett Foundation, calling natural gas development, “easily the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West.” A document containing her statement was exposed in a Washington Examiner article that was read aloud in a Senate hearing and blocked her confirmation.

Frances Beinecke, preceded Suh as president of the NRDC. Beinecke worked for the group for more than 30 yearsbefore becoming the president in 2006, serving as the organization’s executive director for eight years. She is an heir of the Sperry and Hutchinson Green Stamp fortune – her father, William S. Beinecke, president of Sperry and Hutchinson. On June 14, 2010, Beinecke was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. She remains on the NRDC website, listed as a proprietary expert.

Peter Lehner, attorney and long-time environmentalist, is the executive director.

Richard Ayres, co-founder and current trustee, environmental lawyer and instrumental in conceiving and activating the attacks on ExxonMobil with allegations of being a climate change skeptic.

Founding President John H. Adams is one of the highest paid executives of environmental groups ($461,164 from 2006).

Controversies

NRDC’s devastating Alar campaign

NRDC was behind the 1989 Alar scandal in which a root-applied ripening agent with the brand name of Alar was characterized as a toxic “spray” applied directly on apples, which caused a panic and disaster for the apple market. The NRDC attack is documented in Andrea Arnold’s Fear of Food: Environmentalist Scams, Media Mendacity, and the Law of Disparagement. The Introduction by U.S. Senator Steve Symms noted that apple growers lost some $250 million as a result of the campaign, with many smaller growers forced to close down. NRDC’s attack was managed by a notorious far-left public relations expert, David Fenton. According to an internal memo he wrote as a promotional for his services and later published in the Wall Street Journal (“How a PR firm executed the Alar scare” October 3, 1989, p. A22), “We designed [the anti-Alar campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public, and we sold a book about pesticides through a 900 number and the Donahue Show. And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it.”