A Frank Take

Secretly Funded Climate Obstruction Keeps the Fossil Fuel Fires Burning

Cranston-based nonprofit peddles lies for filthy rich corporations


While the planet simultaneously burns and drowns, the fossil fuel industry raked in $4 trillion in profit last year. (istock)

Paid shills for the fossil fuel industry are so proud of their affiliation they hide it.

They are paid to lie and misrepresent facts — all in the name of protecting the filthy rich. They routinely claim, without evidence, that climate initiatives will hurt the economy, increase costs for ratepayers, and slow job creation. They argue that climate mitigation is a hidden tax, some violation of the free market, or unconstitutional overreach.

They argue climate change has been happening for millions of years, but fail to note the relentless burning of fossil fuels has dramatically fast-forwarded the impacts, from hundreds of thousands of years to a few centuries. Many devastating climate changes are already baked in and coming due, and if we don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately, present (Generation Z and Gen Alpha) and future generations will pay an enormous price.

The shills don’t care about food and water shortages, loss of biodiversity, or asthma rates. They’re paid to prevent any reduction in carbon burning.

Here in Rhode Island, climate change skepticism is spread by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. The efforts of the Cranston-based nonprofit led by Mike Stenhouse are supported, at least in part, with money from special interests. But finding information on its website about how the organization is funded is a secret, because progressives are against free speech and freedom, or some such nonsense.

On a webpage titled “Private Donations and Enemies of Debate,” Stenhouse explains why his organization doesn’t report the the identities of its donors.

“From shutting down free speech at events, to forcing nonprofits to publicly report the names and addresses of their donors in the hope of discouraging future contributions, there is a concerted national effort by the left to shut down open and robust public debate,” he writes. “For these reasons, the official policy of our Center is to exercise our constitutional right to keep the identities of our donors private; and to protect them from potential recrimination by those who choose not to engage in honest and open debate.”

ecoRI News is also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Our four most recent financial statements (990s) are posted on our website. Our annual 990s list any foundation or individual who has donated $5,000 or more. In 14 years, debate hasn’t ceased and no one’s freedom lost by making this information available to the public. (The Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s 2019 990, the most recent one ecoRI News could find online, reported $304,534 in total revenue, with all but $72 in investment income coming from contributions.)

Transparency is honesty. (Full disclosure: We’ve had a reader cash in their fossil fuel stock and donate it to ecoRI News, and Chevron annually matches the donation of a former employee.)

The goal of the fossil fuel disinformation network, of which the Center for Freedom & Prosperity is most certainly a member, is to discredit science and attack knowledge to undermine government intervention and muddy the warming waters when it comes to the climate crisis.

Members cloak their fossil fuel fandom by claiming they are protecting families, jobs, and the economy from a boogeyman. They try to manufacture this bump in the night to be more frightening than prolonged drought, dried up rivers and reservoirs, wildfires, excessive heat, melting Arctic and Antarctic ice, sea-level rise, flooding, superstorms, and pollution.

The funding of the climate change counter movement is done in secret to discredit science and keep the fossil fuel profits flowing. (istock)

Dark money

Timmons Roberts, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at Brown University, co-founded the Climate and Development Lab in 2013 to shine a light on the organizations and individuals behind the climate-denial movement. By following the money, Lab researchers, most notably Robert Brulle, have since found many dark corners.

Their research has helped make known the vast sums spent on public relations firms and fossil fuel front groups by ExxonMobil, Shell, other energy corporations, and the infamous Koch brothers to obscure what the industry has known for decades: carbon emissions are destructive.

“We wanted to find what are the forces that are driving inaction, not just inaction, but corrosive counteractions, really rabid anti-climate action in the United States,” Roberts said. “You know, how are they getting what they want at the local level, at the state level, at the national level, and at the global level.”

A 2019 study published in the science journal Nature noted the climate change counter movement employs a multifaceted strategy to develop and spread ideological viewpoints and policies that are favorable to industry interests.

“Creating the appearance of scientific uncertainty about issues for which the solutions may threaten these interests is therefore critical to this intellectual infrastructure,” the authors, including Brulle, wrote.

They noted the spread of scientific misinformation — “at a scale and level of complexity never before witnessed” — has altered the nature of public debate, sowed seeds of cultural and political polarization, and made meaningful legislative action nearly impossible.

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity likes to portray itself as the only thing keeping Rhode Island families from being torn asunder and businesses from fleeing the state. The organization’s mission “is to drive social change, in the form of pro-family, pro-business reform policies — advanced via coalition and public outreach; to keep families home and together in our state; to empower Rhode Islanders to lift their quality of life via increased economic and educational opportunities; and to expose the progressive, special interest agenda as one that creates undue hardship for families and businesses and drives them out of our state.”

To protect everyday Rhode Islanders from “undue hardship,” the organization rails against universal health care, abortion, pay equity, fair housing mandates, minimum wage increases, restrictions on the Second Amendment, and efforts to slow down the phaseout of the car tax.

To reduce energy costs for Rhode Island families and businesses, the Center for Freedom & Prosperity has said “unrealistic and ineffective green energy mandates should be repealed. Don’t blame National Grid — your high electricity rates are mandated by progressive-left green energy policies!”

It has claimed Rhode Island has a relatively low carbon footprint, because “98% of its energy generation is based on natural gas production” — echoing a talking point the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, has been pushing.

In January 2020, the American Petroleum Institute launched its “Energy for Progress” campaign. The initiative has described natural gas as a “clean” or “environmentally friendly” energy source. It also has said that increasing global exports of U.S. natural gas “offers a solution to help lower the world’s carbon footprint.”

Climate scientists say the rising production of natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emerging as one of the biggest drivers of climate change, and that plans for industry expansion could hobble efforts to stabilize the climate.

Methane in the atmosphere had its fourth-highest annual increase in 2022, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Part of an overall rise in planet-warming greenhouse gases the federal agency has called “alarming.”

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which releases large amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases, involves blasting immense volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand deep into the earth to fracture rock formations and release oil and natural gas. The practice also poisons drinking water, and about 25% of fracking chemicals have been linked to cancer.

Some 2 million U.S. wells have been completed using the fracking process, producing more than 7 billion barrels of oil and about 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — plus polluted drinking water sources, public health impacts, and climate-changing emissions.

Fossil fuel front groups are paid to mislead elected officials and the public about the climate crisis. (istock)

Coalition of liars

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity preaches misinformation, claiming “increased natural gas pipeline capacity would bring rates down” and calling a carbon tax a “job-killing, economy-busting proposal.”

In 2016, the organization joined the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic and the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute in a lawsuit demanding the Rhode Island office of the attorney general release documents related to United for Clean Power, a group they claimed was “comprised of politically-motivated AGs from about a dozen states, including Rhode Island, who have secretly teamed up with anti-fossil fuel activists to investigate dozens of organizations that have exercised their free speech by challenging the global warming policy agenda.”

The coalition of 25 states, cities, and counties, led by then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, came together to explore the possibility of working together on climate change-related initiatives, such as ongoing and potential investigations into whether fossil fuel companies misled investors and the public on the impacts of climate change.

A year earlier, the state of New York reached a settlement with Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s largest publicly traded coal company, concerning the company’s misleading financial statements and disclosures. Earlier this year, Peabody Energy was sued in the Delaware Court of Chancery for making allegedly misleading statements about an Australian coal mine fire.

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s lawsuit partner, the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, formerly known as the George Mason Environmental Law Clinic, gained its notoriety by challenging a host of Obama-era environmental regulations.

George Mason University, by the way, has received more in funding from the Koch brothers — notorious climate change deniers whose family has amassed enormous wealth extracting fossil fuels — than any other academic institution, nearly $80 million since 1986, according to DeSmog.

The law clinic has repeatedly sent Freedom of Information Act requests targeting climate scientists such as Michael Mann and James Hansen. It has also filed lawsuits fighting against Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard and the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to impose water quality standards in Virginia.

As for the lawsuit’s third party, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, formerly the American Tradition Institute, The Guardian has reported the organization has “a core mission of discrediting climate science and dismantling environmental regulations” by “filing nuisance suits to disrupt important academic research.” It described the organization as “a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud.”

In a opinion piece originally published by The Providence Journal in early December of last year, Stenhouse blamed everyone but fossil fuel corporations for the rising cost of energy, even though the industry pocketed $2.8 billion a day in profit for 50 years, according to a 2022 analysis.

“Beyond the hyper-inflation and the geopolitical turmoil in Ukraine, President Biden is pointing the finger at major oil companies’ greed for excessive profits,” Stenhouse wrote. “His mis-informed statements reveal the President’s lack of understanding of the underlying root causes. In reality, overzealous green energy policies have artificially forced Big Oil and big electricity firms to hike the cost of energy on Rhode Island’s families and businesses. It is now painfully clear that such activist government policies must be repealed or reformed, not the oil companies themselves.”

The shameless organizations that push for the burning of more pollution lack all three. (istock)

Lack of transparency

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity has a webpage titled “Transparency is Indispensable to Democracy” and notes that as “part of our open government effort, we feel it is important that complete transparency be available so that a fully informed citizenry can fully participate in crucial debates about the future well-being of our citizens and the conduct of our state and local governments.”

But it doesn’t hold itself to the same standard. It leaves it to others to tell you who funds its fossil fuel propaganda.

SourceWatch outlines the organization’s strong ties to Koch-funded entities such as the Virginia-based State Policy Network — a group of free-market think tanks that support the work of many of the most vocal organizations when it comes to promoting climate change skepticism, including the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Heritage Foundation — and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has noted, “Global Climate Change is Inevitable. Climate change is a historical phenomenon and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions.”

Among some of the corporations ALEC has worked with include ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy, according to DeSmog.

On its website, the Center for Freedom & Prosperity notes it is a “proud member of the State Policy Network, a national group of state-based think-tanks fighting to help make government work for all Rhode Islanders, not just the special interest few.”

In 2012 and 2013, the Center for Freedom & Prosperity received a total of $355,875 from Donors Trust, according to SourceWatch. A 2013 story in Mother Jones called Donors Trust and an affiliated group, Donors Capital Fund, “The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.”

The secretive funders behind America’s conservative movement directed some $125 million over three years to groups spreading disinformation about climate science and committed to wrecking President Obama’s climate change plan, according to a 2015 story in The Guardian.

“The amount is close to half of the anonymous funding disbursed to rightwing groups, underlining the importance of the climate issue to US conservatives,” according to the story.

The Guardian reported the anonymous cash flow came from two secretive organizations: the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. The funds, which when channeled through the two organizations can’t be traced to individual donors, helped build a network of think tanks and organizations that worked to defeat climate bills in Congress and mobilized against EPA rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

The lackeys relentless campaign of misinformation doesn’t change reality. (istock)

Don’t believe the lackeys

We’re fever dreaming and there’s no waking up from this global nightmare until we accept responsibility and dramatically change our ways. But fossil fuel lackeys want you to believe the polluting industry they lie for is not a special interest you should worry about — even though global oil and gas profits last year jumped to some $4 trillion from an average of $1.5 trillion in recent years, according to the International Energy Agency.

The lackeys like to blame higher energy costs on inflation, wokeism, and the nonbinding, nonexistent Green New Deal. Their relentless campaign of misinformation doesn’t change reality, but it does preserve the status quo. Their lies are spread, because change is for others. Screw future generations. Greed is good.

Research by corporations that extract fossil fuels actually supports the scientific consensus on climate change. But their lackeys plow ahead anyway with their campaigns of misinformation, even as lawsuits are filed to hold the industry accountable for the climate impacts it knew would occur. Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry minimized the negative health impacts of its products so it could make gobs of money.

Five decades ago, ExxonMobil privately predicted global warming correctly and skillfully only to then spend decades publicly trashing climate science to protect its profits, according to a study published in Science earlier this year.

“For decades, some members of the fossil fuel industry tried to convince the public that a causative link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models used to project warming were too uncertain,” according to the January study. Internal documents “show that one of those fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil, had their own internal models that projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by the independent academic and government models. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe.”

The headline in a Guardian story about the study says it all: “Revealed: Exxon made ‘breathtakingly’ accurate climate predictions in 1970s and 80s.”

The story noted internal documents and research papers previously established that ExxonMobil knew of the dangers of global heating from at least the 1970s, with other fossil fuel companies knowing of the risk even earlier, from around the 1950s.

“They forcefully and successfully mobilized against the science to stymie any action to reduce fossil fuel use,” according to the story.

“For 30 years, people have thought, and by people I mean climate scientists, policymakers, activists, journalists, and academics, that good ideas, good science, and rational thinking would lead to action on climate change and it has not,” Brown University’s Roberts said. “We’ve been, I think, just incredibly naive. And I put myself in that category. I thought, well, if we just have good science people will realize how terrible this problem is. But we’ve seen that’s not the way the world works … the world has very strong, well-organized, extremely well-funded actors and organizations that don’t want us to act on climate change, and they will do anything to stop it.”

The planet is warming faster than at any time in human history, and we’re causing it. Human activity, most notably the burning of fossil fuels, is changing life on Earth, and not for the better.

The time to make significant change is now — not in 2030, 2050, or by the end of the century. Don’t believe the lies.

Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.


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  1. I got State of the State to stage a sit down between myself and Mike Stenhouse (with a moderator) around the economy. I had the goods on a number of his politically motivated lies and called him out, asking why he lied. He admitted he lied whenever it was politically convenient. Facts mean nothing to Mike Stenhouse and anyone who pays any attention to his thoughts on the issues is a fool. In case you are wondering I probably have a way to deliver the episode of state of the state so you can watch it yourself.

  2. George Mason University hosted the think tank that created the neoliberal agenda. The founders were against democracy, they did not want the people to be able to stop bad things being done by the rich. Everyone of the basic tenets of neoliberalism has been disproven. Business climates have nothing to do with prosperity.. The Virginians who fond neoliberalism at George Mason were flat out racists. So is Mike Stenhouse. You would know if you saw or heard anything he spewed about Rhode Map a few years back.

  3. I appreciate the reporting Frank is doing here, and Greg’s comments too add to the understanding of the right-wing (not “conservative”) group being investigated in this post. There is little doubt that they are unusually hypocritical and work to advance the fossil fuel and other environment-unfriendly interests and it informing the public about them is a good service.
    But I also want to note we are now also up against a larger and more powerful group, also financed by both dark money and fossil fuel barons – the Republican Party – which is now threatens our environment and so much more in so many ways, some new. It wasn’t always this way (think the Chafees, Nixon creating the EPA and signing NEPA, the unanimous Senate vote to establish the Endangered Species Act…) I don’t think Republican voters are as anti-environment as the party leaders and their donors. Since environmental progress in the US is at risk with a major party so hostile, perhaps the environmental movement should be thinking about how to reach out to Republicans to help restore a conservation element in that party

  4. Excellent article, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention how hard our own Senator Whitehouse has been working on a national level for years to expose dark money and the damage it’s doing to our democracy, specifically the fossil fuel industry and its influence on the highest levels of government, notably the Supreme Court. His book, “The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court” is an enlightening but nauseating read.

  5. A world in human caused ecological collapse seeking Freedom & Prosperity for future generations would consume less, travel less, build less, eat less wastefully and design cities that do not demand lengthy commutes and that respect size limits, advocate for fewer cars altogether, shorter transportation networks and localized economies. It would make cities smaller and more walkable. It would ban yachts, cruise ships, private jets and SUV vehicles, whether with battery or combustion engines, because they represent a decadent waste of materials and energy.
    Practical solutions are rejected because they imply dramatic limits to economic growth. Economic growth does to the planet what the multiplication of cancer cells does to the human body. It overwhelms and destroys living systems. In blunt terms we need an energy strategy that pointedly shrinks economic activity over time the same way chemotherapy effectively diminishes a cancerous tumor.


    Reduce, Relocalize, Ration, Restore, Rethink, Remember, Relationship, Rewild and Proforestion.
    Levy substantial taxes on every tree that is cut, mineral that is mined, drop of oil that is extracted, or wild animal that is unnaturally removed from the environment. Likewise, a heavy tax would accompany disposal of waste and emissions of pollutants. Meanwhile, labor would no longer be taxed. Labor can add value to resources already in hand. The idea is to tax the damaging things, not the beneficial things.

  6. American Greed
    Lobbying: How Corporations Gain Disproportionate Access
    Corporations are Writing Our Laws
    The Revolving Door
    Campaign Contributions
    Community-Level Bribery
    “The exploitation will create hundreds of good paying union jobs and enrich governments.”
    “The exploitation can make community members rich and solve all of their social and economic problems.”
    “Modern engineering will ensure that the exploitation doesn’t damage the water, air, or the wildlife.”
    “The exploitation will solve climate change”


  7. Greg – thank you for filling in some of the blanks about this Stenhouse (neo-Desantisian) character; keep up the good work to keep democracy informed.

  8. Frank I read this brilliant expose of The Center for Growth and Prosperity when the article disappeared.I sent you email outlining my observations.I’ll reiterate.
    1. I have known for years that Mike Steakhouse is a shill for the fossil fuel industry.
    2. Mike Steakhouse is a former major league baseball player and unfortunately he exerts an undue influence on our legislators and regulatory board members.
    3.This is my major concern is the Center for Prosperity and Growth a 501c3 organization? If do aren’t they prohibited from lobbying.
    4. This should be required reading and should be published in all our major newspapers.
    5. Please contact our Attorney General Peter Neronha and Tim White White at Target 12 News to further investigate your observations.

    Kudos for this brilliant piece if journalism doing what I couldn’t do myself!

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