A push by Gov. Peter Shumlin to divest the state’s pension fund from coal stocks is drawing intense scrutiny from an opposition-research firm that has targeted some of the nation’s leading climate-change activists, including Vermont resident Bill McKibben.
America Rising Squared, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit that bills itself as a “conservative policy organization,” submitted an extensive records requests to the Shumlin administration in early May.
The request sought communications between the governor’s office and climate-change activist McKibben, as well as any staff of 350.org, the group McKibben co-founded.
The request also sought correspondence between the governor’s office and a laundry list of environmental and energy groups, including the Sierra Club, Conversation Voters of Vermont, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
In an email statement, Jeremy Adler, communications director for America Rising Squared, said the group filed the requests “to see the extent to which Governor Shumlin is coordinating with outside special interests to promote this deeply flawed fossil fuel divestment legislation.”
The legislation that Shumlin sought earlier this year would have required the Vermont Pension Investment Committee to divest the state’s $4 billion pension fund of coal holdings, as well as stock in Exxon-Mobil. The bill never advanced, due largely to opposition from State Treasurer Beth Pearce, who said it would be inappropriate for the Legislature to insinuate itself in fiduciary decisions best left to VPIC.
A compromise with Pearce will instead see VPIC explore the fiduciary implications of divestment before enacting any policy changes.
American Rising Squared’s focus on McKibben extends far beyond the records request in Vermont. Politico reported in late April that the issue-advocacy group, which does not have to disclose identity of its donors, had launched a well-funded “negative” campaign targeting McKibben and Tom Steyer. Steyer is a major donor to Democrats who in 2010 pumped $5 million into defeating a ballot measure in California that, if passed, would have rolled back emission-reduction mandates in that state.
The campaign by America Rising Squared, according to the Politico story, includes the use of so-called “trackers” who are paid to follow McKibben and Steyer and collect video of their public appearances.
In his statement to VPR, Adler says that “given the fact that environmental activist Bill McKibben is from Vermont and his organization has actively promoted (the divestment legislation), we feel it's important that Vermonters know that he may be behind this push, which is right in line with his other radical ideas.”
Adler says AR2, as his group is known, is still poring over the hundreds of pages of emails the request generated.
A quick review of the communications however shows that McKibben and Shumlin met on at least two occasions – once for a “brief drink” in June of 2011, and again in December of 2013, after McKibben reached out to a Shumlin staffer seeking time “when I could bend the ear of the governor for five minutes RE: divestment from fossil fuels.”
Neither Shumlin nor McKibben were immediately available for comment Tuesday evening. But neither has sought to downplay their working relationship in the past. Shumlin has in fact highlighted McKibben’s role in policy development on numerous occasions.
In the State of the State address in which Shumlin called for coal divestiture in January of this year, the governor praised McKibben’s role in advocating for the policy, saying “no one who has done more to promote divestiture than Vermont’s own Bill McKibben.”
He then pointed out McKibben, who attended the speech, and paused while people applauded the Middlebury College scholar in residence.
The two men didn’t always see eye-to-eye on divestment. In 2014 – after both of the meetings referenced in documents produced by the records request – McKibben slammed Shumlin publicly for the governor’s “sad” and “slippery” stance on divestment.
Shumlin had appeared to endorse the concept of divestment in one interview, only to backpedal in subsequent interviews.
In an interview with Paul Heintz of Seven Days, McKibben took aim.
"People are very tired of slippery politicians — and a couple of thousand Vermonters who went all the way to New York to join in the largest political gathering about anything in some years will, I think, hold him accountable to his statements," McKibben told Heintz.
In a written statement issued by 350.org, shortly after Politico reported on new campaign against him, McKibben said that he’s “flattered that our work has exposed the fossil fuel industry enough that they feel the need for this kind of personal attack.”
“But as usual, the real news is the lengths they will go to avoid talking about the greatest issue of our time, their ongoing wreckage of the planet’s climate, and in the process so many of its people,” McKibben said.
America Rising Squared submitted a second public records request last week, seeking all communications between the governor’s staff and Eric Becker, chief investment officer at Clean Yield and a leading proponent of divestment, and James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International.
The Shumlin administration is still processing those requests.