Fact Check: Are Russians involved in state Senate campaign?
Posted June 28, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Those battling over "fracking" in North Carolina have long used arguments about national security and energy independence, but things got downright geopolitical in a fundraising email from state Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, this week.
"The environmentalists are on the attack again – and this time, Russia is in the mix," leads off Barefoot's fundraising appeal to supporters.
While international relations rarely figure into state legislative campaigns, the email links to a story that suggests that – in some places on globe at least – the Russian government might be trying to thwart new natural gas exploration. But it's not immediately clear if any of those places are on this side of the Atlantic.
BACKGROUND: Fracking is the colloquial – some would say pejorative – term used for a bundle of methods that involve horizontal drilling, the high-pressure injection of chemical-laced water and sometimes explosives to extract natural gas from shale rock. Sometimes called hydraulic fracturing, the process has been the focus of a years-long political debate in the state, with proponents saying North Carolina needs to participate in the nation's energy independence and opponents decrying the potential environmental damage.
Barefoot, among other senators, has been the target of ads by political groups labeling him as part of the "Fracking Crew," which criticize his support of legislation that will open the state to fracking. The latest of these spots began running on June 24.
THE EMAIL: Barefoot's email references these "negative attack ads" as well as comments by a NATO leader that "Russians are 'secretly' joining forces with extreme liberal environmental groups to spread misinformation regarding energy exploration." Although Barefoot stops short of saying this explicitly, the overall impression of the email is that "interests as far a field as Moscow and the Kremlin" are somehow playing a part in his state Senate campaign. Here's the text of the fundraising email:
The environmentalists are on the attack again - and this time, Russia is in the mix.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen stated last week that the Russians are "secretly" joining forces with extreme liberal environmental groups to spread misinformation regarding energy exploration by funding "anti-fracking groups."
Their goal - maintain dependence on Russian natural gas.
You see, liberal environmentalists are outraged at the thought of US energy independence - in fact, they have already poured over $1 million dollars into negative attack ads against our campaign, smearing me for supporting a bipartisan, clean energy jobs plan. Will you donate $25, $50, $100, $500, or more right NOW so that we can fight back against these extremists?
It is time to set the record straight and get this campaign rolling with our own TV ads. We can't let liberal, out-of-state special interests-even interests as far a field as Moscow and the Kremlin mislead the people of our district. That's why I'm coming to you right now.
Please consider making a generous donation so that the truth can be heard.
Thank you for your continued support.
THE QUESTION: Although he doesn't come out and say it, Barefoot's email certainly implies that Rasmussen's remarks somehow bear on his race and that the environmental groups running TV ads against him are "out-of-state special interests." Is there any evidence that Russians have, or would want to, set to work in state Senate District 18?
THE BACKUP: Barefoot's email links to a report in The Guardian that Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "has accused Russia of undermining projects using hydraulic fracturing technology in Europe."
That report is based on one paragraph of a lengthy speech Rasmussen gave to Chatham House, a London-based think tank. The same speech was picked up in reports by The Times of London, CNN and The Financial Times, although seems to have dropped out of the news after a few days.
In his speech, a transcript provided by NATO quotes Rasmussen as saying, "But I have one additional remark on shale gas because I have met Allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations, environmental organizations working against shale gas, obviously to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. That's my interpretation. So it adds a new aspect to… to this information operation."
Left unsaid in the speech – and unspecified in the reporting on it – is how exactly Rasmussen might know this or what the evidence for such an operation might be. Environmental groups, many of which have been antagonistic to the Russian government, denied any entanglement. A spokesman for Greenpeace called the idea "preposterous" in The Guardian story.
Also, Rasmussen's speech focused on European affairs, not domestic energy policy in the United States.
WRAL News asked Barefoot whether he could point to anything that might indicate the phenomenon Rasmussen identified was at play here in North Carolina. The first-term Republican's response via email, altered only for punctuation and capitalization and to embed links, is as follows:
"Our intention was to point out that foreign countries have a vested interest in stopping natural gas exploration and exports from the United States, and environmental groups are joining that fight. Just recently, their efforts to stop a bipartisan coalition in Congress from approving exports to our allies was well-documented in national media.
What they’re spending is actually dark money – not this kind of “dark” money that’s disclosed – so I’ll leave it to you to track. You could start by pressing my opponent’s husband on where these groups get their millions. But there’s no question some of the organizations funneling cash for environmental attacks have an international presence. See the attached 990 from the NRDC.
The 990 form in question does reflect the Natural Resources Defense Council's involvement abroad, although it doesn't list any information that would provide evidence of the Russian government providing funding.
Barefoot is running against Sarah Crawford, a Democrat who works for the Tammy Lynn Center for Developmental Disabilities. Dan Crawford, her husband, is a lobbyist with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. That group is not part of the coalition airing the ads against Barefoot.
RESPONSE: The ads in question are being aired by the North Carolina Environmental Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups.
Dan Crawford pointed to the fact that his group was not involved in partnership and, therefore, had no comment regarding the Barefoot ads. "We're just not involved with what's going on there," he said.
Mary Maclean Asbill, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center, a partnership member, said there was no Russian money behind the messaging.
"No, we are not receiving funding from Russia," Asbill said. "I'm not surprised he wants to talk about something outlandish, or a conspiracy theory, to deflect from what's really going on."
THE EXPERTS: Rasmussen's claim is hard to assess because he did not, during his speech, lay out the basis for the claim. The Chatham House speech seems to be the singular occasion on which this theory has been floated.
"This is the only time I've ever heard that the Russians are collaborating with non-government organizations," said Michael Newcity, a senior researcher and associate professor at Duke University's Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies.
The idea that Russia would use its rich energy reserves to harangue neighboring countries is not a crazy one.
"Time and again, Russia has used its exports of natural gas as a cudgel to beat other countries, primarily Ukraine," Newcity said.
But pointing to both The Guardian story and the text of Rasmussen's speech, he points out that Rasmussen does not mention the United States.
"He doesn't seem to be talking about western European countries," said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Rojansky said it was much more likely that Rasmussen was talking about Russian meddling in the old Soviet sphere of influence, like Poland.
"Is it absolutely impossible that the Russians have contacts with American political parties or organizations? Of course not," he said. "But it's hard to see the percentage of getting involved in a local race like this."
If nothing else, he said, limited Russian resources would constrain the country's ability to get involved in such a geographically distant race.
"What's not absurd is that greater American energy production could make a difference in Europe," Rojansky said.
The New York Times and the public radio show Marketplace have done reporting on how the United States might use increased natural gas production to wean Europe of the strings-attached supply from Russia. The Huffington Post recently published a document that purportedly shows the European Union has urged the U.S. to step up its energy exports to Europe.
For anyone following this line of thought, the problem is not natural gas production. The cost of natural gas is at historic lows in the United States. Rather, the issue is transportation. The U.S. does not have the pipelines to ship natural gas to ports on the East Coast or the terminal facilities needed to load liquefied natural gas onto tankers. Creating such a network would be expensive and take time. All of which would make Russian involvement in a North Carolina state Senate race an extraordinarily long con.
"I think the involvement of Russians in a local Senate race is a pretty silly prospect," Rojansky said.
Newcity agreed. Barefoot, he said, seemed to be playing on his older constituents' memories of the Cold War rather than any salient topic in the campaign, rather than trying to distract from his policy stance.
"It's red meat rather than a red herring," Newcity said. "He's serving red meat to his conservative constituency."
One more note – North Carolina is thought to have a very small supply of natural gas within the context of the United States overall. Some estimates have pegged the reserves under the Tar Heel State at around 10 days of national supply. So, it's unclear why a foreign player hoping to influence the global chess board would focus its efforts here rather than in energy-rich states such as North Dakota or Texas.
THE CALL: Hit the brakes. There seems to be scant evidence that Russians are funding the European fracking debates, much less dabbling in fracking policy here in the United States. Experts say its unlikely, bordering on "silly," to suggest the Russians would have the time, money or inclination to bother with a North Carolina legislative race. Therefore, we give this fundraising email a red light on our fact-checking scale.