With the aid of a $400,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was established in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement—most notably, attorneys Gus Speth, Richard Ayres, and Tom Stoel. Another key founder was the environmental activist John Bryson, who, many years later (in 2011-12), would serve as President Barack Obama‘s commerce secretary.
NRDC’s multi-pronged mission is to “safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends”; “restore the integrity of the elements that sustain life—air, land and water”; “defend endangered natural places”; “establish sustainability and good stewardship of the Earth as central ethical imperatives of human society”; “protect nature in ways that advance the long-term welfare of present and future generations”; “foster the fundamental right of all people to have a voice in decisions that affect their environment”; and “break down the pattern of disproportionate environmental burdens borne by people of color and others who face social or economic inequities.” The Council’s overriding objective is 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.”
From its earliest days, NRDC embraced the theme promoted by Rachel Carson‘s 1962 blockbuster book, Silent Spring—namely, that exposure to manmade chemicals was a major cause of cancer in human beings. Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise executive vice president Ron Arnold and conservative political activist Alan Gottlieb would later characterize NRDC as a “virtual Chemical Warfare Council—waging war against nearly every chemical used in industrial processes, an insidious way to destroy the economy without the consumer noticing until the product vanishes.”
After Jimmy Carter was elected U.S. President in 1976, a number of NRDC attorneys found jobs in the new administration. Gus Speth, for instance, chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and David Hawkins became Carter’s assistant administrator for air.
Through its Citizen Enforcement Program in the early 1980s, NRDC filed numerous lawsuits against companies that were allegedly violating environmental statutes. The Council targeted these transgressors chiefly under the auspices of the Clean Water Act, because that law permitted ordinary citizens to file the suits. According to Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, NRDC’s citizen-suit program impeded technological innovation “by frightening companies away from trying new pollution control devices that might initially cause technical violations of the law but when the bugs are worked out could clean up pollution much better.”
In a joint effort with Fenton Communications, a Washington-based public relations firm headed by David Fenton, NRDC in 1989 issued a report claiming that apple growers who treated their fruit with the pesticide Alar were creating a serious health threat to consumers. The Council’s accusation was based on a 1973 study in which a by-product of Alar had caused tumors to grow in laboratory mice. But as The New York Times reports:
“The dosage used in the study was eight times greater than the so-called maximum tolerated dose, the amount above which tissue damage occurs even from innocent substances because of the high concentration. Subsequent tests by the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency failed to show that Alar caused cancer. Only when mice were given extremely high doses, equivalent to 133,000 to 266,000 times the amount a preschool child might consume in a day in apples and apple juice, did any tumors result.”
Given these facts, the Food & Drug Administration assured Americans that apples treated with Alar were safe to eat.
But those assurances were not enough to mitigate the public fears that were being stoked by the massive NRDC/Fenton Communications campaign against the pesticide. For five months NRDC and Fenton flooded media outlets—starting with the CBS news program _60 Minutes—_with stories suggesting that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen. Finally, on June 2, 1989, Alar’s manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Company—recognizing the futility of trying to counter the NRDC/Fenton campaign—withdrew the product from the market.
Eventually the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that the Alar scare was unfounded, explaining that a person would have to consume 50,000 apples per day over the course of a lifetime in order to ingest enough of the substance to develop cancer. But this revelation came too late for apple growers, who lost a combined $375 million as a result of NRDC’s anti-Alar campaign; many small growers were forced out of business.
NRDC, meanwhile, fared much better. According to an internal memo written by David Fenton and later published in the Wall Street Journal: “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.”
According to the Capital Research Center:
“The NRDC’s Alar hoax became a model for other environmental organizations. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Health Care Without Harm, [the] Science and Environmental Health Network, and the Environmental Working Group [EWG] would use the media to launch a series of attacks against a variety of products and technologies. They included pesticides sprayed on crops, chlorine used to purify drinking water, even life-saving medical devices…. The targets of such scare campaigns invariably were products containing man-made chemicals which the groups claimed—in the absence of supporting data—posed a risk to public health or the environment.”
For example, in 1993 NRDC and EWG each published the results of a series of “studies” stating not only that pesticides posed a danger to children, but also that a forthcoming report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was “expected to confirm that children are uniquely vulnerable to pesticide residues in food.” But in fact the NAS report said nothing to condemn pesticides, even as the media and environmentalist groups parroted the NRDC/EWG claims repeatedly. For instance:
Public fears regarding the issue steadily grew and, before long, caused Congress to pass the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which authorized the EPA to restrict or even ban a pesticide if the Agency deemed it a risk to children.
In 1998, NRDC again teamed up with Fenton Communications (and a group called Sea Web) to promote an initiative called “Give Swordfish a Break!” Billed as a grassroots effort to raise awareness about the over-fishing of endangered species and to tighten federal fishing regulations, the campaign was bankrolled by grants from some 270 food merchants. Eventually, however, analysts noted that: (a) swordfish were not actually endangered, and (b) even if they had been endangered, NRDC’s campaign would have done little to revive their numbers, since it targeted only the U.S. fish market. At its heart, “Give Swordfish a Break!” was part of a larger strategy to cast federal regulations over numerous varieties of seafood, whether they were endangered or not. Toward that end, NRDC claimed that, in addition to swordfish, seafood species like cod, scallops, sole, sea bass, sturgeon, redfish, red snapper, and monkfish should be classified as “over-fished.”
The website ActivistCash.com—by examining another (anti-caviar) joint venture by NRDC, SeaWeb, and Fenton Communications—offers insight into the financial motivations that likely underpinned the “Give Swordfish a Break!” campaign as well:
“When SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council announced their joint effort to discourage the consumption of Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, a news release blamed the imported caviar market for the ‘overfishing’ of these sturgeon. SeaWeb’s web site still publicly brands the food as ‘a luxury product no one really needs and for which there are a number of viable alternatives.’
“Within three weeks of SeaWeb’s proclamation, Whole Foods Markets announced that it would begin selling a new ‘sustainable alternative to endangered wild sturgeon.’ The news release was promoted to the mass media by another Washington PR outfit called Environmental Media Services (EMS). Could this be the ‘viable alternative’ that SeaWeb is so keen on?
“Consider this: Whole Foods and EMS are both clients of Fenton Communications. It’s probably not a coincidence that one Fenton client is trying to skew public perception of an issue that could benefit another client…. The real purpose behind SeaWeb’s campaigns seems to be to drive business to Fenton Communications’ other clients.”
Also in the late 1990s, NRDC was an outspoken booster of the Enron Corporation, whose name later became synonymous with corporate malfeasance. For its support of environmentalist legislation like the Kyoto Protocol—a tactical move by which the company aimed to eliminate its competition in the energy industry—Enron earned the praise of NRDC and other environmentalist groups. For example, NRDC’s Ralph Cavanagh said in 1997:
“[W]e appealed for help from [the] corporate community. Many former friends were conspicuously silent. [Enron CEO] Ken Lay was [an] extraordinarily honorable—and initially lonely—exception, and he is part of the reason why the bad guys ultimately failed at most of what they attempted.… On environmental stewardship, our experience is that you can trust Enron.”
In 2003, after Enron’s scandals and bankruptcy had made big headlines, NRDC lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. assailed the Bush administration’s energy plan as a sop to corporate interests; as proof, he cited the administration’s alleged ties to Ken Lay.
On August 28, 2001, NRDC collaborated with Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and a number of Alaska-based environmental and arms-control groups to sue the Department of Defense (DoD), demanding that it provide an Environmental Impact Statement before proceeding with its planned development of a missile-defense test range in the North Pacific. According to NRDC, the DoD project was likely to “disrupt unique and pristine ecosystems” and “habitat[s] for endangered species”; produce “hazardous electromagnetic radiation”; and release “large quantities of ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere.”
Throughout the early 2000s, NRDC denounced the George W. Bush White House’s alleged intimacy with corporate interests and its purported hostility to the environment. In particular, the Council characterized a March 2002 meeting between energy-industry lobbyists and the Bush administration’s Energy Task Force officials—a routine occurrence in any administration—as prima facie evidence that corporate interests wielded inordinate influence over the Bush energy policy. But in fact, Task Force members had also met with environmentalist groups and had accepted many of their suggestions for energy policies.
In 2003 NRDC condemned the Bush administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative,” which called for the Forest Service to thin out some 20 million acres in fire-prone forests by removing dead and diseased trees and brush. Citing the fact that some timber companies would be involved in that removal process, NRDC complained that the Initiative would be “a bonanza for the timber industry” and a “severe setback for public forestlands.”
NRDC similarly opposed the Bush administration’s “Clear Skies” campaign, which was designed to reduce power-plant emissions of sodium dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury—but not to levels low enough to satisfy NRDC. Instead, the Council backed an alternative bill known as the Clean Power Act, which not only called for more draconian restrictions on the aforementioned emissions, but also mandated reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. “Despite mounting evidence of the urgency of this problem,” said NRDC, “the President’s plan fails to include a single measure to reduce or even limit the growth of carbon dioxide, the chief pollutant causing global warming.” In fact, the federal government had never before regulated carbon dioxide.
Also in the early 2000s, NRDC endorsed the Earth Charter, a document blaming capitalism for many of the world’s environmental, social, and economic problems. The Charter complains, for instance, that “the dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species”; “the benefits of development are not shared equitably”; and “the gap between rich and poor is widening.”
In 2009 NRDC was part of the Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Policy Group, a coalition of “watchdog” organizations demanding that the U.S. reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons by nearly 95 percent while simultaneously slashing research and development.
NRDC is a staunch ally of the Portland, Oregon-based Corporate Ethics International (CEI), an environmental group whose mission is to bring corporations “under the control of the citizenry.” In 2010, CEI launched a campaign opposing the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which would have transported oil from the tar sands near Alberta, Canada, to the U.S Gulf Coast. A March 2011 NRDC issue paper claimed that “the proposed pipeline presents serious environmental and health risks” and warned that it would pose a threat to freshwater supplies in the American heartland. By November of 2011, President Barack Obama was reciting NRDC’s claims on this subject virtually verbatim. In so doing, he was contradicting the findings of his own State Department, which, after an exhaustive review of the Keystone project, had concluded in August of 2011 that the pipeline would have “no significant impact” on land and water sources along its route.
Today NRDC is one of the most influential environmentalist lobbying groups in the United States. It claims 1.4 million members and online activists, and employs a staff of more than 300 lawyers, scientists, and policy experts. The organization’s president since 2006 has been Frances Beinecke, a co-founder of the New York League of Conservation Voters, a former board chair of the Wilderness Society, and a board member of the World Resources Institute.
NRDC’s major program areas are as follows:
* Global Warming: NRDC asserts that “carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants”—which are by-products of human industrial activity—“are collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, trapping the sun’s heat and causing the planet to warm up … at the fastest rate in recorded history.” “If we do not aggressively curb climate change now,” the Council warns, “we will see a dramatic increase in the incidence and severity of natural calamities such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires.” To avert these disasters, says NRDC, mankind must dramatically reduce its air-polluting activities by “mak[ing] cars that run cleaner and burn less gas, moderniz[ing] power plants and generate electricity from nonpolluting sources, and cut … electricity use through energy efficiency.”
* Energy and Transportation: “There’s nothing we can do to control the price of gas in America,” says NRDC, “because oil prices are set on a global marketplace. As we’ve seen, more drilling certainly isn’t the answer, because that’s done nothing to reduce prices at the pump. The only thing more drilling has done is increase profits for oil companies…. [T]he only way we can reduce how much we spend on gasoline is to reduce how much gasoline we use.” Toward that end, NRDC advocates the development of hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, biofuel, and more stringent fuel-economy standards. It also encourages people to consider commuting to their workplaces by means of walking, biking, or public transportation—and, wherever feasible, telecommuting. By NRDC’s reckoning, taxpayer funds should be channeled into promoting these priorities—and tax breaks to oil companies should be eliminated.
* Air: Warning that “carbon pollution is causing climate change that drives dangerous heat waves and worsening smog pollution,” NRDC calls for the EPA to force all 50 U.S. states to establish their own performance standards requiring electricity providers to steadily lower their carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour produced.
* Water: According to NRDC, “Changing climate patterns are threatening lakes and rivers, and key sources that we tap for drinking water are being overdrawn or tainted with pollution.” To address these problems, the Council promotes water-efficiency strategies such as stricter efficiency standards for appliances, buildings, and irrigation systems; seeks to defend and strengthen the Clean Water Act; and uses litigation to curtail “unsustainable water withdrawals that threaten endangered fish species and their habitat.”
* Oceans: On the premise that “years of chronic overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction have stripped our seas of much of their vitality and productivity,” NRDC strives to “craf[t] common-sense fishing policies, promot[e] conservation-minded approaches to how fisheries are managed, and enforc[e] and defen[d] laws to stop destructive fishing practices.”
* Food and Agriculture: Among NRDC’s concerns are “toxic pesticides on crops, excessive antibiotics in animal agriculture, and contaminants that leach from food packaging.”
* Wildlands: Strongly opposed to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as a means of accessing gas and petroleum reserves, NRDC claims that this process causes “dangerous chemicals” to contaminate water supplies. The Council also fights to “preserve threatened wildlife and wild places across the Americas, from Alaska to Peru”; strives to protect forests from “attack by oil and logging companies and their [Republican] supporters”; and seeks to combat “industry” which “wants to burn our forests for biomass electricity, pollut[e] the air we breathe, and stea[l] from future generations.”
* Health: NRDC’s Environment and Health Program focuses on “promoting sustainable agricultural practices”; “eliminating pesticides and other harmful contaminants in food”; “ensur[ing] that everyone has access to clean and affordable drinking water”; removing “toxic chemicals associated with cancer, learning disabilities, and reproductive problems” from home cleaning products and lawn-care products; working directly with manufacturers abroad to “adopt environmentally sustainable business practices and green their supply chain”; and defending “scientific integrity” by scrutinizing “the qualifications of scientists appointed to key government advisory boards to assure they are free from financial conflicts of interest and to uncover biases.”
* Wildlife: NRDC views human industrial activity as generally harmful to animals and the natural world. One area of concern is how “human-caused noise in the ocean, whether it’s the sound of airguns used in oil exploration or subs and ships emitting sonar,… can drown out the noises that marine mammals rely on for their very survival, causing serious injury and even death.”
* Environmental Justice: By NRDC’s telling: “Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts—say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot.” The Council pledges to fight this insidious “environmental racism.”
* U.S. Law and Policy: Accusing Republicans in Congress of pursuing a “mission to cut environmental protection and other essential government programs”—and promoting “tax loopholes” that “subsidize polluters”—NRDC has produced numerous “Policy Basics” fact sheets that each provide “a broad overview of a major environmental issue, including a brief description of how the federal government addresses the problem, what’s working and what isn’t, and what issues are likely to come up this year.” NRDC also provides legislative analyses of proposed laws, evaluating the environmental impact they are likely to have.
* Nuclear Energy: Warning that “a future severe nuclear accident at a U.S. nuclear power plant is a real possibility,” NRDC laments that “more than 120 million Americans liv[e] within 50 miles of a U.S. nuclear power plant.”
* Sustainable Communities: “In its most basic form,” says NRDC, “a sustainable community is one that can continue in a healthy way into an uncertain future…. Housing, transportation and resource conservation are managed in ways that protect economic, ecological and scenic values.”
* Recycling: NRDC states that recycling “protects habitat and biodiversity”; “saves energy, water, and resources such as trees and metal ores”; “cuts global warming pollution from manufacturing, landfilling and incinerating”; and “involves minimizing waste along the entire life cycle of a product, from acquiring raw materials to manufacturing, using and disposing of a product.”
Philanthropic support for NRDC has risen dramatically in recent years, from just over $36 million in 1999 to more than $89 million in 2010. As of 2010, the Council had assets of $181,427,464. Among NRDC’s leading backers are the Bauman Family Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Blue Moon Fund, the Bullitt Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Energy Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Heinz Family Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Scherman Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and many others.
Headquartered in New York City, NRDC also has offices in the District of Columbia, Montana, California (San Francisco and Santa Monica), and China (Beijing).
NRDC’s board of trustees includes numerous business leaders, environmentalists, and community organizers, as well as such notables as Patricia Bauman, Laurie David, Leonardo DiCaprio (actor), Van Jones, Robert Redford (actor), and James Taylor (singer/songwriter). The board’s active members and honorary members also include officials from such groups as the Brennan Center for Justice, Demos, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the United Steelworkers of America.
As a tax-free corporation under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, NRDC is subject to limits on the amount of money it can disburse for the purposes of lobbying Congress. But it has found a way around such restrictions by establishing a separate lobbying arm, the NRDC Action Fund, under a different section of the tax code—501(c)(4). This Action Fund “works to support pro-environment legislation and defeat anti-environment legislation through paid advertising and phonebanking and by mobilizing grassroots pressure.”