The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calls itself "the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.4 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals." Its assets were worth $185 million in 2012 and its 2011 revenue was just under a hundred million dollars.
NRDC members are not members in the usual sense of the word; they do not pay membership fees and do not have voting powers. They are merely online followers.
NRDC has been accused of being too close to government. It's personnel are in demand for government bureaucracies because they are not only knowledgeable about government policy and legislation but are willing to deal, negotiate and be pragmatic (see revolving door).
NRDC was founded in 1970 by two Wall Street lawyers, to fight legal cases to protect the environment. It was funded by the Ford Foundation on the condition that it accepted a conservative board of trustees that included Laurence Rockefeller and other wealthy conservatives and that its legal activities were cleared by a group of past presidents of the American Bar Association. One of the two founding lawyers, Stephen Duggan was a partner in the New York law firm, Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett, which included utilities as a major part of their cliental.
During the 1970s and 80s the NRDC made a name for itself fighting legal battles to enforce clean air and water legislation as well as cases to do with pesticides, arms testing and a myriad of other issues. However when it came to energy issues it moved from being a confrontational outsider to a significant player with a seat at the negotiation table, with the help of the San-Francisco-based Energy Foundation.
NRDC received $3.1 million from the Energy Foundation between 1991 and 1997 and $1.13 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts between 1993 and 1995. The Energy Foundation itself was founded by the MacArthur, Pew and Rockefeller Foundations with an initial grant of $20 million which grew to over $100 million by 1998. It became one of the largest "passthrough foundations", passing on grant money from other foundations. Its preferred recipients, including the NRDC and the Environmental Defese Fund (EDF), tended to be dominated by lawyers and those who favoured free market economics.
Both the Energy Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts dominated the funding for activist groups ensuring that those lobbying on energy issues took a pro-business, pro-deregulation and pro-private utility stance or didn’t receive funding.
Nader claimed “the network of funders has become a network of enforcers. And these guys are all on a first-name basis with these corporate [utility] executives.” The Energy Foundation ran conferences where environmentalists and consumer activists could hob nob with utility executives and get on their wavelength.
The Energy Foundation promoted Demand-Side Management (DSM), with a $6 millon grant to NRDC, in a way that approached the problem of energy efficiency from a market-based, non-regulatory stance. The spin was that the utilities would voluntarily invest in energy efficiency measures rather than new plants because this would improve their share value and financial position. Groups that did not support DSM were not funded by the Foundation.
In reality the utilities decided it was not in their interest to encourage reduction in electricity usage and DSM became "little more than free public relations for utilities" because they soon discarded energy efficiency programs and continued to build new plants.
Daniel Berman and John O’Connor argue in their book Who Owns the Sun? that demand-side management was little more than window-dressing from the utilities’ perspective and they went along with it as long as it didn’t significantly reduce energy demand and so long as alternatives such as wind and solar power were left out of the picture.
NRDC also played a key role in promoting electricity deregulation and ensuring that stranded assets such as nuclear power plants were reinbursed by ratepayers.