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A powerful US congressional committee has alleged that Russia financed major environmental organizations and used social media to support opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline, fracking and fossil fuels.

The Republican-controlled committee claimed in a new report that the Kremlin is attempting to make “‘useful idiots’ of unwitting environmental groups and activists” to further its global agenda.

“US energy exports to European countries are increasing, which means they will have less reason to rely upon Russia for their energy needs,” said Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House committee on science, space and technology, in a statement. This helps explain “why Russian agents attempted to manipulate Americans’ opinions about pipelines, fossil fuels, fracking and climate change”.

A close reading of the report, however, reveals that many of the committee’s claims rely on meager evidence, not least its assertion that Russia has backed land and wildlife conservation organizations including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

In the report, the committee said: “Russian-sponsored agents funneled money to US environmental organizations in an attempt to portray energy companies in a negative way and disrupt domestic energy markets.”

Drawing on data provided by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the committee also contended that Russian agents have exploited US social media platforms to upend domestic energy markets and suppress the use of fossil fuels such as natural gas. It asserted, for instance, that between 2015 and 2017, more than 9,000 Russian-backed posts or tweets regarding US energy policy circulated across the three major social media platforms. On average over a three-year period, this amounted to fewer than three Russian-backed energy-related posts on each of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram per day.

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The committee offered several examples of alleged Russian trolls spreading memes that are critical of US fossil fuel producers and pipeline projects, including the Dakota Access pipeline. Many of the examples the committee cites are drawn from a single Facebook and Instagram page titled “Born Liberal”, whose posts averaged very few shares on Facebook.

Another post cited in the report.

Another post cited in the report. Photograph: United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Smith, who has taken more than $700,000 in career oil and gas industry campaign contributions, has long maintained that US green groups are beneficiaries of Kremlin-linked largesse. In a letter to the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, last June, for instance, Smith claimed that shady shell companies and private foundations were passing “money originating in Russia to various US 501(c)(3) organizations such as the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and others”. Smith requested that the treasury department investigate the matter.

The League of Conservation Voters denounced the allegation that Russian-backed agents have funded it.

“This is false,” says David Willett, the organization’s senior vice-president of communications. “We have no connections to Russia and have been an effective advocate for environmental protection for nearly 50 years.”

In a statement, the Sierra Club legislative director, Melinda Pierce, called the accusations of Russian-backed financing “absurd, false smears” that “were invented by the same deceitful front groups getting paid to do the dirty work of big polluters and big tobacco”.

Footnotes supporting the congressional report’s funding claim lead back to a single 2015 publication, From Russia With Love?, that was compiled by an organization called the Environmental Policy Alliance, an industry front group created by the Washington DC public relations operative Richard Berman.

In 2014, the New York Times obtained an audio recording of Berman advising fossil fuel executives at an industry summit that they should envision their struggle against environmentalists as “an endless war”. He then asked the gathered executives to finance the Environmental Policy Alliance’s “Big Green Radicals” campaign, an effort to sully the reputation of major American environmental groups.

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