Representatives from the firearms industry and free-market think tanks are criss-crossing the country advocating for legislation that severely curtails—and often outright prohibits—state governments from considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when making decisions about investments and contracts.
The bills in question tend to be lifted directly from model bills developed by pro-corporate, fossil fuel-backed think tanks and range from setting restrictions on state contracting and pension management to protecting the fossil fuel industry from divestment. A handful of landmark bills passed in 2021—such as an anti-boycott bill in Texas that favors fossil fuel companies—set the precedent for subsequent legislation.
The three most active individual lobbyists behind these efforts represent the firearms trade, a climate-denialist think tank, and a right-wing free-market group, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s analysis of lobbying reports collected by researcher Connor Gibson. And although they spout spurious claims about the negative effects of ESG bills locally—including on public service pensions for firefighters and police officers—more often than not these lobbyists are from out of state.
Leading Lobbyist: Firearms Industry
Nephi Cole, director of government relations at the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), has proven to be the most active anti-ESG lobbyist in 2023, testifying on six bills in five state houses. Between Cole and his NSSF colleague Christopher Lee, the organization lobbied for a total of 11 anti-ESG bills this legislative session.
Firearms advocates such as NSSF often claim that their industry is treated unfairly by banks, businesses, and governmental agencies, which is a key talking point in their testimony. These groups and the fossil fuel industry have modeled their rhetoric around the Right’s campaign to blacklist backers of the pro-Palestinian boycott, divest, sanctions (BDS) movement.
“Woke banks routinely attack Second Amendment companies,” Cole said, speaking in favor of North Dakota legislation that prevents the state from considering “social” factors in investments. “Our members have a history of being denied fair access to financial services simply because of our industry.”
Cole cited the Obama administration’s Operation Choke Point—which investigated banks doing business with firearms dealers, payday lenders, and others potentially involved in fraud and money laundering—as an example of the firearms industry being unfairly targeted. A decade ago, senior administration officials “identified the power in leveraging banks to implement a social and political agenda,” Cole said. “The goal was the denial of financial services to our industry and to others.”
Right-wing gun advocates have also taken to filing shareholder resolutions at large publicly traded companies in order to prevent what they consider “banking discrimination.”
As a recent report on the status of anti-ESG legislation from Pleiades Strategy points out: “Were they to become law, the inevitable result of the bills would be to manipulate the market to favor select industries, particularly the volatile fossil fuel and firearms sectors.”
Leading Lobbyist: Climate Denial and Anti-Abortion Groups
Bette Grande, the state government relations manager at the climate-denialist Heartland Institute, is the lobbyist with the most states and most bills under her belt since 2021, having testified in eight state houses on 11 different anti-ESG bills. In addition to lobbying for Heartland, she speaks on behalf of the Pro-Family Legislative Network and her own policy outfit, the Roughrider Policy Center (a State Policy Network affiliate that she describes as “North Dakota’s Free-Market Think Tank”).
When Grande served as a North Dakota state representative from 1996–2014, she was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the bill-mill that advances pro-corporate, anti-climate policy priorities. She sponsored the state’s 2013 Human Heartbeat Protection Act, which made North Dakota the first state to pass legislation banning abortion after six weeks (though it was later invalidated as unconstitutional under the since-overturned Roe precedent). In Nebraska, Grande provided support for LB 743, a bill based on the Heritage Foundation’s model pensions bill. In North Dakota, another anti-ESG bill co-sponsor credited her with providing the template for the legislation (which failed to pass in the most recent session).
In addition to advocating for free-market principles, the Heartland Institute works to discredit climate science and undermine environmental policies. Heartland hosts a page on its website devoted to anti-ESG talking points, reports, and media commentary. Its staff members and guest speakers regurgitate climate conspiracy content—what they call “climate realism”—at Heartland’s annual climate conference, where earlier this year an anti-ESG state financial officer compared ESG policies to Nazism.
Leading Lobbyist: Florida’s Top Right-Wing Policy Shop
Eric Bledsoe, a visiting fellow at the Opportunity Solutions Project (OSP), the advocacy arm of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), has been another leading anti-ESG lobbyist, appearing in five states to testify in favor of five bills this legislative session.
Since the first anti-ESG legislation was passed in 2021, OSP has been one of the think tanks with the largest geographic and legislative reach. During the past three legislative sessions, it has deployed 12 lobbyists to eight states working to advance 24 anti-ESG bills. Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country’s premier firearms advocacy group, are the second and third most active lobby shops but had only a fraction of OSP’s reach, with each employing only half the number of lobbyists working in half the states on a quarter of the bills.
Bledsoe previously worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the fossil fuel-backed Charles Koch Foundation.