Natural Resources Defense Council: The Scaremongering Chemophobe-in-Chief

Published February 9, 2017

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a New York City-based environmental activist powerhouse that describes itself as the “nation’s most effective environmental action group.”

Officially incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1970, NRDC began its operations with funds from a start-up grant from the Ford Foundation totaling $410,000.

NRDC’s mission statement grandiosely declares, “NRDC’s purpose is to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. … Ultimately, NRDC strives to help create a new way of life for humankind, one that can be sustained indefinitely without fouling or depleting the resources that support all life on Earth.”

NRDC was the first of many public-interest law firms given start-up grants by the Ford Foundation. In the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation developed a new concept of influencing public policy through funding public-interest law centers, focusing its efforts first on influencing environmental and natural-resource policy as a test case for the concept. After helping establish NRDC, the Ford Foundation gave similar grants to the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern California Center for Law in the Public Interest.

NRDC is guided by approximately 30 trustees, many of whom are business moguls and Hollywood celebrities. The trustees include Laurance Rockefeller, attorney and former ambassador to Costa Rica; Anne Slaughter Andrew; actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Redford; and singer James Taylor. NRDC’s vice-chair is Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

Well-Heeled, Well-Connected

NRDC has become a well-funded political powerhouse since its beginning in 1970, having established a separate lobbying arm, the NRDC Action Fund, and a grassroots activism organizing group, the Environmental Accountability Fund.

In 2013, NRDC had $268.1 in financial assets and $116 million in income. The NRDC Action Fund brought in $1.7 million in revenue to support its lobbying efforts in 2013. Between 1998 and 2013, NRDC and its affiliates spent $9.5 million on lobbying and $1.6 million supporting political candidates.

In addition to the money NRDC wields to influence elections and environmental and energy policy, NRDC has developed cozy relationships with federal agencies. As early as 1976, NRDC found a place within the corridors of power in Washington, DC. NRDC cofounder Gus Speth chaired President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and Carter chose NRDC attorney David Hawkins to be assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean air program. reports NRDC staff has held 50 positions on 40 federal advisory committees. NRDC representatives submitted regulatory recommendations to 256 federal dockets, and the organization funded numerous congressional junkets, including 40 to Alaska for five members of Congress (four Democrats, one Republican) and eight staffers.

Demonstrating the revolving door between Capitol Hill and NRDC, as of 2013, 10 NRDC lobbyists worked in congressional offices before they joined the group.

Obama Administration Ties

NRDC President Rhea Sun Suh previously served as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). In 2014, Obama nominated Suh to be the assistant secretary in charge of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Senate blocked Suh’s new appointment when hearings revealed Suh, as a program manager for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, had directed millions of dollars to green groups nationwide for projects to stop oil and gas production.

In a 2007 Hewlett Foundation newsletter, Suh said, “[N]atural gas development is easily the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West.”

After her nomination was blocked, Suh resigned from DOI and soon was named president of NRDC.

Frances Beinecke, an heir of the Sperry and Hutchinson Green Stamp fortune, preceded Suh as NRDC president. On June 14, 2010, Obama appointed Beinecke to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Beinecke remains listed on NRDC’s website as a proprietary expert.

Alar Scare

NRDC has been a leader among green groups in stoking fear of modern chemicals.

In 1989, NRDC instigated the Alar scandal, in which activists characterized a root-applied ripening agent called “Alar”—used on approximately 5 percent of the apples in the United States— as a toxic “spray.”

Based on an NRDC report, titled “Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Food,” which had not undergone peer review nor relied on data from human health research, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a segment in 1989  titled “A is for Apple.” As detailed in a Capital Research Center (CRC) report on NRDC, “Host Ed Bradley told an audience estimated at 40 million that children were eating apples tainted with ‘the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply.'”

“The effect of the ’60 Minutes’ broadcast was devastating,” wrote the authors of the CRC expose. “Panicked parents refused to feed their children apples. Within days of the broadcast, apples were removed from supermarket shelves; apples and applesauce were pulled from school lunch menus; and apple growers suffered losses estimated at $250 million.”

Although NRDC’s clams were false and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed apples treated with Alar were safe to eat, the product’s manufacturer caved to public pressure and voluntarily withdrew it from the marketplace on June 2, 1989.

In an October 1989 story, The Wall Street Journal published internal memos from the public-relations firm that had given NRDC’s Alar report to 60 Minutes showing NRDC’s push to ban Alar was designed to generate revenue for the organization. The memo stated, “We designed [the anti-Alar campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public, and we sold a book about pesticides through a 900 number and the Donahue Show. And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it.”

BPA Ban Failure

Not all NRDC anti-chemical campaigns have been successful in getting the targeted chemicals pulled from the market or banned by government. On March 30, 2012, FDA rejected an NRDC petition to ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from food containers.

BPA is one of the most commonly used chemicals in America. It is used to make shatter-resistant plastics and to create epoxy linings. Common food-related uses include baby bottles that won’t break and linings that protect food from contamination.

In its petition, NRDC claimed BPA, which had been in widespread use since 1957, is linked to a variety of human health problems, including cancer, obesity, and hormone disruption.

Noting BPA is one of the most widely studied chemicals in existence, FDA rightly rejected the petition. FDA, EPA, The European Food Safety Authority, the U.K. Food Standards Agency, and the World Health Organization, among dozens of other U.S. and international research bodies, have all studied BPA and found it poses little or no health risk to children or adults as currently used.

Herbicide Ban Failure

Another chemical NRDC targeted for extinction was 2,4-D, one of the most effective herbicides available today. The herbicide has been used in the United States since the 1940s, with approximately 600 products registered for agricultural, residential, industrial, and aquatic uses containing 2,4-D as an ingredient. Commonly found in “weed and feed” lawn fertilizers, 2,4-D kills broadleaf weeds, such as clover and dandelion, while preserving grass.

In 2004, the Ford Foundation listed 2,4-D as one of the 75 most important innovations of modern times because of its effectiveness in controlling weeds and lack of toxicity to humans and the environment.

Nonetheless, in 2008, NRDC petitioned EPA to remove 2,4-D from the market, claiming it posed an unreasonable risk to humans and the environment.

After a thorough review, EPA rejected NRDC’s request in 2012, saying in a statement, “EPA evaluated all the data cited by NRDC and new studies submitted to EPA in response to the reregistration decision. Included in the new studies is a state-of-the-science extended one-generation reproduction study. That study provides an in-depth examination of 2,4-D’s potential for endocrine disruptor, neurotoxic, and immunotoxic effects. This study and EPA’s comprehensive review confirmed EPA’s previous finding that the 2,4-D tolerances are safe.”

EPA also concluded there is no credible scientific evidence the chemical poses any threat to wildlife or agricultural workers.

In an Environment & Climate News interview conducted shortly after EPA declined to withdraw 2,4-D from the market, Jim Gray, executive director of Industry Task Force II on 2,4-D Research Data, said EPA’s decision was a positive outcome and its importance could not be overestimated.

“The EPA did a very thorough job,” Gray said. “This time, they went out of their way to explain how they do a risk assessment and how the concerns of people like the NRDC are accounted for in their risk assessment. The length and breadth of the EPA’s response instills a higher level of confidence in the product.”

Affordable Electricity Targeted

In an attempt to sway elections in 2004 and again in 2012, NRDC released a controversial report, titled “‘Toxic 20’: States with the Highest Levels of Toxic Air Pollution from Power Plants.” The report was an attack on affordable electricity, targeting states that rely on coal-powered electricity, the most affordable large-scale source of electricity. The NRDC report ignored the fact emissions of regulated pollutants have been declining and were, according to EPA’s data, commonly below levels posing any human health risk.

Commenting on NRDC’s report, which listed Florida as the third most “toxic” state, Abigail F. MacIver, director of policy and external affairs for the Florida office of Americans for Prosperity, told Environment & Climate News in 2012, “The NRDC ignores a number of significant factors, including that the level of toxins being omitted by power plants decreased.”

MacIver said NRDC was simply trying to push federal regulation of coal to the point where the industry would be driven out of business.

“Such a tactic is economically destructive and environmentally unnecessary, given already substantial long-term declines in emissions,” MacIver said. 

Green Power Broker

NRDC is one of the most powerful green lobbying groups in the country. NRDC members who serve on key federal advisory panels shape policy behind the scenes, as the organization has a virtual revolving door between it and congressional offices. Its public activism influences laws and regulations. Even when its protest tactics, lawsuits, and regulatory petitions fail to produce the regulatory restrictions NRDC desires, its actions stoke public fear of technologies fundamental to modern civilization—all while filling its coffers.

One can only hope the Trump administration will neuter NRDC’s effectiveness in fomenting fears and influencing public policy.

Ron Arnold ([email protected]) is a free-enterprise activist, author, and commentator.


Ron Arnold, “Natural Resources Defense Council,”, September 2015:

Bonner Cohen, “Natural Resources Defense Council,” Capital Research Center, August 2003: