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FACT SHEET: House Republicans’ ESG Witnesses Are In The Pocket Of Big Oil And Corporate Interests

Jul 12, 2023

The House GOP is at it again with another series of partisan stunt hearings focused on pushing the MAGA agenda by attacking environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment strategies. Even though MAGA policies enacted at the state level to ban responsible investing have already cost taxpayers millions, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee are desperate to reward deep pocketed campaign contributors who stand to lose from responsible investing by inviting a slate of witnesses including two right-wing climate change deniers backed by fossil fuel interests, one of whom believes climate change is beneficial for humans. MAGA Republicans are working to undermine responsible investing as part of an effort driven by the deep pocketed right-wing activists who are best known for stripping away rights from everyday Americans on issues ranging from voting rights to abortion. Republicans would rather pursue partisan stunts than address the real financial issues facing most Americans like inflation.

James Copland is a Senior Fellow and Director of Legal Policy at the right-wing Manhattan Institute.

  • The Manhattan Institute Pushes Climate Change Denial And Is Funded By Fossil Fuel And Far Right Interests. Copland has served on the staff of the Manhattan Institute since at least 2012. During his tenure the Institute has promoted climate science denialism while promoting policies that benefit the fossil fuel industry and promote oil and gas development. The Institute’s website is hostile towards renewable energy and explicitly states that “an ‘energy transition’ away from society’s dependence on hydrocarbons is not feasible in any meaningful time frame, and it is a dangerous delusion to base policies on the idea that such a transition is possible.” Unsurprisingly, the Manhattan Institute is well funded by fossil fuel companies and interests. Although the full extent of their oil and gas funding is not known, between 1997 and 2017, the group received over $3 million from Koch brothers affiliated foundations, and since 1998, the Institute has received more than $1.3 million from ExxonMobil. The Institute has also received large contributions from conservative mega donors like the Mercers and the Bradley Foundation and historically was a major recipient of funding from big tobacco companies. 
  • Copland Joined Big Oil Interests And Republican Attorneys General In An Ongoing Suit Against The Department Of Labor’s ESG Rule. James Copland is a plaintiff in a suit brought by 25 Republican attorneys general against the Department of Labor in February 2023 over a Biden administration regulation that gives retirement plan sponsors more freedom to consider environmental, social and governance factors when selecting investments. In addition to Copland and the attorneys general, the plaintiffs include oilfield services firm Liberty Energy and the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and natural gas trade association. 
  • Copland Deplores The Horrors Of ESG And “Politicized” Investing, But Praises The Unlimited Corporate Political Spending Unleashed By Citizens United. For at least 10 years Copland has been a regular author of op-eds condemning socially responsible investing in a variety of right-wing news outlets. In 2012, Copland warned of “politicized proxy advisers” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. In his most recent op-ed in the New York Post, Copland claimed that ESG activists are targeting Kit Kat bars because a group of investors is urging Nestle to “rebalance its sales towards healthier products.” Although he supposedly deplores “politicized” investing and ESG, Copland has also written op-eds praising the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns. 
  • One Of Copland’s Colleagues At The Manhattan Institute Is Christopher Rufo, One Of The Originators Of The Conservative Crusade Against CRT, DEI, And ESG. One of Copland’s colleagues at the Manhattan Institute is Christopher Rufo, a conservative firebrand who has incited panics against “Critical Race Theory” and ESG investing standards. Rufo has explicitly targeted what he deems “woke capital” and attacks companies’ freedom to do business in the way they see fit, warning corporations that they better “declare neutrality in the culture wars or we will make you pay a price in the marketplace.” 

Benjamin Zycher is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on energy and environmental policy.

  • Zycher Is Known As ‘The Climate Science Denier In Residence” At AEI. Zycher is a prolific climate change denier in his writings and congressional testimony. The Union of Concerned Scientists calls Zycher “the climate science denier in residence at the American Enterprise Institute.” As recently as March 2023, Zycher testified before the Senate Budget Committee that “There is no evidence of a climate ‘crisis’ in terms of temperature trends, polar sea ice, tornadoes, tropical cyclones, wildfires, drought, flooding, or ocean alkalinity.” He has written that the idea “that humans are the single most significant cause of climate change is simply unsupported by the available science” and referred to the concerns over carbon pollution as “propaganda.” 
    • Zycher Claims That Climate Change Is Beneficial For Humans. In a 2021 op-ed in National Affairs, Zycher wrote that there is a “very real possibility that the small amount of warming that will likely occur might yield noteworthy benefits.” Zycher doubled down on this absurd claim in his March 2023 Senate testimony in which he claimed that global warming will have such beneficial effects for humanity as increased food production. 
  • Zycher Is A Defender Of Fossil Fuels And Opposed Renewable Energy. Zycher is a staunch defender of the fossil fuel industry and an opponent of developing renewable energy sources. Zycher has criticized any efforts to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, claiming that, “the real welfare for ‘polluters’ is not the purported ‘subsidies’ for fossil-fuel producers but instead is the policy subventions for renewables.” Zycher has also been an outspoken critic of renewable energy, writing that “there is nothing clean about it” and that solar panels and wind turbines create heavy metal pollution, a “flicker effect” and unacceptable “wildlife destruction.” 
  • AEI Is Funded By Big Oil Interests. The American Enterprise Institute has received millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Since 1998, Exxon Mobil has contributed nearly $5 million to AEI, and between 1997 and 2017, the Institute received more than $2.1 million from the Koch brothers’ interests.. In addition to its known contributions from big oil and energy companies, AEI has received hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from Donors Trust and other undisclosed sources of right-wing funding. 

Lawrence Cunningham is a business attorney & consultant currently working as special counsel for Mayer Brown LLP.

  • Cunningham Serves As A Director of the Markel Group, A Firm Owned By Top Private Equity Firms & Fossil Fuel Investors. Cunningham currently serves as a director of Markel Group (MKL), a firm with an ESG risk rating of 29.14 that indicates medium vulnerability to risks driven by environmental, social and governance factors as measured by the firm’s business model and engagement with unsustainable sectors and subindustries. The Markel Group is primarily owned by institutional investors, with over a quarter of total shares held by five massive firms: Vanguard Group, Blackrock, Principal Financial Group, Morgan Stanley, and Berkshire Hathaway. Several of these top firms – including Vanguard, Blackstone, and Berkshire Hathaway – manage billions of dollars in oil and gas assets, though some are also actively engaged in efforts to divest from fossil fuels.
  • Cunningham Is On Leave As A Director and Vice Chairman Of Constellation Software Inc., A Firm With Medium Vulnerability To ESG Risks. Cunningham is currently on leave as a director and vice chairman of Constellation Software Inc. (CSU). CSU’s ESG risk rating of 27.60 indicates medium vulnerability to risks driven environmental, social and governance as measured by the firm’s business model and engagement with unsustainable sectors and subindustries. CSU is owned by a mix of mutual funds and institutions. Top institutional owners include Janus Capital Management, Fidelity, Akre, and Vanguard, with the firm’s top mutual funds also owned by those institutions. Notably, several of CSU’s top funds hold fossil fuel investments, with one having moderate energy industry exposure.
  • Cunningham Serves As A Director of Kelly Partners Group. Cunningham currently serves as a director of Kelly Partners Group (KPG), an accounting network with a highly diversified ownership structure, with few top firms or institutions holding more than one percent of total shares. Sustainability metrics for the firm are also largely unavailable.
  • Cunningham Is An Expert Authority On Business Law. Cunningham is widely seen as an expert in the field of business law and has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the topic. The former Professor of Law and Business and Vice Dean at Boston College and former Research Professor at the George Washington University School of Law wrote the textbook on accounting used by many law schools around the country.