WASHINGTON (CN) – Fearing that the State Department helped organize climate-change activists before President Barack Obama left office, a coal-funded think tank has brought a federal complaint to access the agency’s emails.
The group behind Monday’s lawsuit is called the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. Previously known as the American Tradition Institute, the nonprofit has been proven through bankruptcy records to have taken money from the coal industry. Climate scientists have complained that the group’s legal tactics – seeking personal emails or draft publication under the Freedom of Information Act – amount to harassment.
Monday’s challenge is inspired by an email that the institute says Jennifer Morgan of the World Resource Institute sent to State Department officials Todd Stern and Clare Sierawski on April 15, 2015.
Calling Morgan a “lobbyist for an environmentalist pressure group,” the complaint says her email requests the State Department’s help in coordinate climate-change activists “in recognition that the current [Obama] administration is coming to an end soonish and their [China’s] desire to open up channels in DC that are additional to the ones that are working well now.” (Brackets in original.)
Though more than a month has passed since the institute filed a FOIA request for State Department records on this issue, it says the agency “has provided no response whatsoever.”
The group’s Jan. 25 request demanded copies of any messages between Morgan and any of six State Department employees, sent any time between April 15, 2015, and Jan. 20, 2017.
Key words in these messages for the institute are “a) China, b) Chinese, c) NCSC, d) support (including also supportive, supporting, et al.), and/or e) expert (including also in e.g., “experts” or “expertise”).
The six State Department employees at issue represent top brass for the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change.
The envoy oversaw negotiations at the Paris Climate Conference and is "responsible for developing, implementing and overseeing U.S. international policy on climate change,” according to a government website.
In the same Jan. 25 request, the institute sought messages involving the same six State Department employees and “Kelly Sims Gallagher, Paul Joffe, Manish Bapna, Paul Bodnar (at any email address including one ending in @Gmail.com or @wri.org).”
“Under FOIA, [the State Department] owed plaintiff a substantive initial determination to this request by February 23, 2017,” according to the complaint.
The institute is represented by Chaim Mandelbaum and Chris Horner. Mandelbaum declined to comment on the litigation, but the organization has a statement on the case from Horner.
“State continues to withhold records from the public that appear to be highly instructive about the Paris treaty’s development without any legitimate claim to privilege,” Horner said.
“We look forward to confirming by this suit and others, that the current administration will not in fact continue the Obama administration’s brazen practice of keeping records secret and will reverse these uses of the non-existent yet remarkably persistent political embarrassment exemption to FOIA.”
The Intercept reported that Horner individually was among those who received funding from Alpha Natural Resources, according to the coal giant’s bankruptcy records.
Horner, who told CNN in 2009 that the earth was in fact “cooling,” spoke at the 2015 Coal and Investment Leadership Forum.
His statement on Monday’s case calls on the Trump administration to “shed some light on these schemes, which, whether at EPA or State, exist solely due to have having avoided our proper democratic processes.”
The State Department did not return multiple calls for comment.
The six State Department employees whose emails are at the heart of Monday’s complaint are special envoys for climate change Trigg Talley and Todd Stern; former State Department legal adviser Sue Biniaz; former chief of staff for the office of the special envoy for climate change Clare Sierawski; director of the office of global change Christo Artusio; and the organization's Chinese affairs counselor David Vance.
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