Much has been made of the ties between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and alleged Russian spy Maria Butina after the Justice Department unsealed a criminal conspiracy complaint against Butina on July 16. The investigation seems to have centered largely on whether Butina sought to use the NRA to funnel funds to the Trump campaign.
But Butina’s own funding could raise troubling new questions about President Donald Trump, centering in part on a multi-billion dollar deal signed in 2017 to export ethane, a plastics feedstock, from America to China.
Here's What We Do Know
While much from the multiple investigations underway (into Butina's alleged spying conspiracy and into Trump's connections to Russia) remains under wraps and many questions are still unanswered, here’s what we do know so far:
Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian businessman, is believed to have provided funding to Maria Butina as part of her alleged illicit espionage for Russia in Washington D.C.
The company has many ties to powerful Russians. The Guardian revealed on July 10 that Putin’s former chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, also kept an undisclosed investment in American Ethane, shielding it from the enhanced scrutiny normally required for dealings by members of Putin's inner circle by using a shell company.
American Ethane found some powerful supporters in the U.S. as well.
Last year in Beijing, the company signed a $26 billion contract to export ethane — with Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump in the room. That deal was signed at the same time as an $83.7 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) promising Chinese investment in West Virginian ethane-based manufacturing was signed.
A video posted on American Ethane’s website shows President Trump applauding as American Ethane CEO John Houghtaling shakes hands with the chairman of China’s Nanshan Group during the U.S.-China trade summit in November 2017.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the shadowy billionaire referred to in the Butina investigation was Nikolaev, citing a person familiar with Butina’s Senate testimony. The Post also pointed out that Nikolaev’s $1.2 billion net worth matched figures provided by prosecutors and that Nikolaev had acknowledged discussions with Butina (but his spokesman had declined a request for confirmation that Nikolaev had provided the NRA-linked alleged Russian spy with financial support).
That billionaire played a powerful role in Butina’s activities in the U.S. “In a court filing last week, prosecutors said Butina’s emails and chat logs are full of references to a billionaire as the ‘funder’ of her activities,” The Post reported. “They wrote that the billionaire is a ‘known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.’”
Through her lawyer, Butina has denied being a Russian agent.
American — Er, Russian Ethane?
Nikolaev, described by Forbes as a “self-made” billionaire and citizen of Russia, made his fortune largely through the railroad and port businesses. In the U.S., he was part of a group of “angel” investors providing a $3.5 million investment in 2016 to a tech startup called Grabr, and he currently sits on the board of American Ethane, LLC.
It’s not clear how much compensation Nikolaev has received from American Ethane, which as a privately held company is required to disclose much less financial information than a publicly traded firm.
But it is clear that Nikolaev played a very significant role in the company. Nikolaev provided an investment that prevented “the company from going under” after Putin annexed Crimea, according to The Guardian.
Nikolaev also reportedly lent former-Putin aide Voloshin his $1.25 million, 2.5 percent stake in American Ethane.
The Guardian describes American Ethane as backed by a “consortium of Russian investors … that at one point included the oligarch and billionaire Roman Abramovich,” listed by Bloomberg as among the 100 richest people in the world and, as DeSmog reported in February 2017, is poised to profit from the Keystone XL pipeline's construction.
A third Russian businessman, Andrey Kunatbaev, also sits on American Ethane’s board of directors.
A Very Big Deal
The role American Ethane may have played in building Nikolaev’s fortune poses a potential issue for President Trump, who helped to promote American Ethane’s $26 billion 20-year deal to export ethane from a terminal on the Texas Gulf Coast to China.
That $26 billion deal seems to have been a huge score for American Ethane, which suffered from serious financial troubles (prompting Abramovich to jump ship) just two years ago when oil prices dropped.
CEO John Houghtaling’s law firm biography still touts a 2016 American Ethane deal “associated with over $8 billion of debt and equity” and the company’s other reported business dealings are similarly on a significantly smaller scale.
Before Nikolaev’s alleged role in the Butina investigation became public, Houghtaling claimed that the deal actually ran counter to Russian interests. “I’m quite proud that my Russian partners decided to take huge sums of their money out of Russia and invest it into America,” he told WWL-TV in mid-July, “for a deal that will reduce the deficit with China and displace Russian gas.”
The export deal has been facilitated by a powerful private equity backer in the oil and gas industry. In February, a private equity firm called Energy & Minerals Group (EMG) — co-founded by former Plains Resources CEO John Raymond, son of former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond — announced a deal to provide American Ethane with “up to 480,000 barrels [of ethane] per day from various U.S. midstream companies and producers.”
EMG also announced it would “provide the remaining capital investment” for American Ethane’s export project.
American Ethane signed two other deals with China after the $26 billion deal was announced, and said that all told, the deals would almost triple exports of ethane from the U.S.
A Trump-Russia-Fracking Connection
American exports of ethane are largely being driven by the continuation of shale gas drilling and fracking (American Ethane itself cited the shale rush in a 2015 promotional video). Ethane comes from shale wells alongside the “natural gas” or methane that is sold to heat homes and for electrical power.
As fracking expanded nationwide since 2010, U.S. ethane production more than doubled, according to the Energy Information Administration. Its primary use is in the production of single-use plastics, such as packaging film and beverage bottles but American Ethane worked to market it as a fuel for power generation as well.
The domestic ethane market became so over-supplied that many companies left ethane mixed in with the natural gas shipped to customers instead of separating it and selling it for petrochemical manufacturing. Plans to export ethane to markets abroad, where it will command a higher price, have attracted much attention from investors, as have plans to increase the use of ethane here in the U.S. by building petrochemical infrastructure from Pennsylvania to Texas.
An $83.7 billion plan to build out an ethane-reliant petrochemical industry in West Virginia, part of an MOU President Trump witnessed alongside the American Ethane deal in November 2017, has led to a public corruption investigation in West Virginia that prompted the abrupt resignation of the state’s Secretary of Commerce.
To be sure, there is no available evidence indicating that Trump knowingly used the office of the Presidency to help a Russian espionage ring amass funding — but at the very least, his celebration of the American Ethane deal represents a major new embarrassment to a President whose term in office has been dogged from the outset by allegations of Kremlin connections.
“This is national security stuff,” Houghtaling told Fox Business in November with regard to U.S.-China trade ties. “I think the gravity of what we were doing in big picture stuff is not lost on any of us.”
For the rest of us, an even bigger picture may only be starting to come into focus.