Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who own the oil and chemicals conglomerate Koch Industries, may have failed to get a Republican into the White House in 2012, but they’re succeeding in a broad national push for deregulation. A quarter of senators and more than one-third of representatives have signed a little-known pledge — backed by the Kochs — not to spend any money to fight climate change without an equivalent amount of tax cuts.
They are among 411 current office-holders and politicians, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Virginia Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II, Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, three members of the Railroad Commission of Texas, the Oklahoma schools superintendent, the Idaho state treasurer and three justices of the peace in Arkansas who have signed the “No Climate Tax Pledge.”
The pledge was created by the libertarian grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) in 2008. AFP was co-founded in 2004 by the Koch brothers and Koch Industries board member Richard Fink, a former economics professor and executive vice president at George Mason University.
The Investigative Reporting Workshop has tracked the No Climate Tax Pledge since its beginnings in July 2008 when it got its first signer, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, home to Koch Industries headquarters.
While the pledge began with a marginal following, an energized turnout of conservative voters in the 2010 election swept 85 freshman Republicans into the House. Of those 85 Republicans, 76 signed the Koch pledge as candidates. And 57 of those 76 received campaign contributions from Koch Industries’ political action committee.
With the support of these newly elected Republicans, from 2011 to 2013, Congress passed increasingly smaller budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attempted to strip the agency of varying regulatory powers and discouraged policies to address climate change across multiple federal agencies, according to the Workshop’s analysis.
In addition, senior staff at more than a dozen Koch-funded nonprofit groups have made frequent trips to testify on Capitol Hill in favor of federal deregulation. One of their top causes: fighting environmental laws and government spending on alternative energy. That includes promoting American consumption of oil and coal, blaming environmental laws for hurting the economy and questioning the science behind global warming. Since 2011, about a dozen groups testified on the issue during committee hearings at least 30 times.
President Obama called for new action on climate change on June 25 in a speech at Georgetown University, showcasing initiatives that would bypass Congress. These include directing the EPA to establish carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants; providing loans for cleaner fossil fuel projects; directing the Department of Interior to permit wind and solar projects on public lands; setting new standards for appliances and federal buildings.
And although the initiative is getting pushback from some in both parties and in industry, who see it as as over-reaching, James Valvo, AFP’s policy director, said the president’s efforts have nothing to do with the pledge.
Continue to cast doubt
Staffers from some Koch-funded nonprofit groups have continued to testify before Congress, sowing doubt about climate change in spite of scientists’ consensus that global warming exists, that it warrants concern and that it is tied to human behavior.
Recent 2013 testimony includes:
• On Feb. 5, Mary Hutzler, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, told members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that research shows America has an abundance of fossil fuel reserves that could power the nation for nearly 600 years.
Hutzler urged lawmakers to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, off the coast of the southern United States and in the Green River that runs through Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
“Our economy needs the lasting stimulus that robust energy development on federal lands and waters would provide,” she said, according to the committee transcript.
• On Feb. 14, her colleague, Daniel Simmons, director of Regulatory and State Affairs at the Institute for Energy Research, told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that environmental regulation of the oil industry is to blame for the rising cost of gasoline. He also suggested opening up the same federal lands to oil and gas drilling.
• A month later, on March 13, Hutzler testified during a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that federal subsidies of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources had failed to make America energy independent. She argued that the fuels receiving the most government money produced the least amount of energy.
• On April 24, an energy policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticized federal incentives for companies that make fuel-efficient cars.
• On April 25, Simmons urged members of the House Committee on Natural Resources to support a bill that would allow companies to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, in waters belonging to the United States and Mexico. At the same hearing, research fellows at the Heritage Foundation also testified in favor of the bill.
• On May 7, Paul Knappenberger, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, told members of House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that carbon dioxide emissions from the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline would have an insignificant impact on climate change. He also challenged the notion of a scientific consensus linking carbon dioxide emissions to climate change.
“The more we learn, the less responsive it seems that the earth’s average temperature is to human carbon-dioxide emissions,” Knappenberger said.
And testimony last year included this:
• On Sept. 11, 2012: David Kreutzer, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, emphasized uncertainty about carbon dioxide’s role in global warming during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Kreutzer criticized the EPA’s funding of environmental programs in developing countries, adding that “the magnitude of carbon dioxide’s impact on global warming is, in fact, not settled.”
Other Koch-funded groups whose staff and researchers have testified in recent years against federal environmental regulation are the George C. Marshall Institute, the American Council for Capital Formation, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The Heritage Foundation said large donors such as the Kochs have no influence on the research done by the conservative think tank. The Koch foundations gave $1.8 million to Heritage from 2007 to 2011, according to IRS records. The money funds general operations and not any specific programs, said John Von Kannon, vice president and senior counselor of development for Heritage.
“Our requests to them are very clear on that,” Von Kannon said.
Heritage gets most of its money from more than 600,000 individual donors, minimizing the influence of any one person or group, he said. Donors don’t ask Heritage staff to testify on Capitol Hill, he added.
“They tell us, ‘We like what you’re doing, and we want to support you,’ ” Von Kannon said.
Regulating greenhouse gases
In April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, said that the Environmental Protection Agency could regulate greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, among others — under the Clean Air Act.
The Supreme Court’s decision accelerated the climate change debate in Congress, propelled by two major cap-and-trade bills in three years. Those bills would have put limits on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted nationally. Both bills died in the Senate, and a cap-and-trade system — a free-market approach under which limits are placed on certain emissions or pollutants, and companies can sell the unused portion of their limits to other companies — never passed. While the proposals were unsuccessful, they helped foster a growing opposition, including creation of the No Climate Tax Pledge in the summer of 2008, just weeks after the first cap-and-trade bill failed.
James Valvo helped recruit the first federal politicians to sign the pledge. He said AFP was concerned about the intrusion of government into the private market.
“We really wanted to participate in that debate and discussion about what was going to happen with cap-and-trade, which we saw as a very big threat to domestic economic freedom, and we designed the pledge in a way that didn’t have climate change (science) at the center of it,” Valvo said.
These bills and the likelihood of a new administration that acknowledged the problem of climate change and also supported cap-and-trade legislation — both major party presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama did in the 2008 election — galvanized the oil and gas companies into action. Their cumulative lobbying expenditures in Washington shot up from $360 million during the second term of the George W. Bush administration to $612 million between 2009 through 2012, Obama’s first term, a 59 percent increase, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.
While there are no national limits on greenhouse gases, Congress did create a program to measure them. The last paragraph of the EPA’s fiscal year 2008 budget earmarked $3.5 million to establish a greenhouse gas reporting program. The program tracks the largest emitters, which account for 85 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2011, the most recent data available, Koch Industries and its subsidiaries emitted more than 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from 50 sites, according to the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts. That is slightly more than the country’s highest polluting power plant or equal to the annual emissions of 5 million cars. Koch Industries ranks as the 27th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States, according to PERI.
The evolution of the pledge
Sen. Roberts was the first member of Congress to sign the Americans for Prosperity pledge, on July 26, 2008, just a few weeks after that summer’s cap-and-trade bill failed.
At the federal level, progress on the pledge started slowly. “The reaction was mixed, probably,” Valvo said. “A pledge is not an easy thing to launch. People are a little skeptical about pledges and what they mean and how they impact them.”
Only two senators and 12 representatives signed up by the end of 2008. But AFP’s state chapters had made inroads, particularly in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan. They convinced more than 60 politicians in those three states to sign the pledge in those early days.
One of the biggest turning points for Americans for Prosperity was when the House Republican leadership — then-Minority Leader John Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence — signed the pledge in April 2009.
“As somebody who worked the issue, to say we went from something where we were sort of a scrappy outlier and it was hard to get people to do it, now this is the established position. I thought that was a pretty big deal,” Valvo said.
Americans for Prosperity continued to pursue state politicians and candidates preparing to run for Congress in 2010. “From a strategy standpoint,” Valvo said, “You have to sign up people you know aren’t going to win just so you can go to the one frontrunner in the race and say, ‘Hey, you know you’re not on here. Everybody else in the race is on here. What’s your position on this issue?’ More often than not, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I agree with you. It just hadn’t come to my attention yet.’ And then they sign and then that person goes into office.”
Before the 2010 election, 770 officeholders and candidates had signed the pledge. And 156 were elected to the House, making up more than a third of the body.
(Charles and David Koch were also active in the 2010 election. Koch Industries’ PAC gave more than $1.3 million to 213 prospective senators and representatives. Charles and David Koch and their wives personally gave more than $400,000, all going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
“I think it was really important to the pledge and really moved it up to the next level when those folks came in to Congress,” Valvo said.
Attempting to defund, limit the EPA
The first chance that the bloc of 85 freshman Republicans had to influence environmental policy was with H.R. 1, the bill that would fund the federal government for fiscal year 2011. The House passed a 27 percent budget cut for the EPA, which, had it passed the Senate, would have been the agency’s largest cut since 1981.
“We were trying to tell our brothers on the Republican side that they’re never going to get this through the Senate, but they were posturing,” said Norm Dicks, a Democrat, and the former ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee. “They wanted to make the cuts. They thought they were going to win political points with the Tea Party-types for cutting the EPA budget.”
Lawmakers also attempted other cuts by proposing 162 amendments, 22 of which would have cut EPA programs or limited the government’s enforcement of environmental regulations and its ability to study climate change. However, H.R. 1 never became law because the House and Senate were not able to reach a budget compromise until April 2011, when H.R. 1473 narrowly avoided a government shutdown. After negotiations with the Senate, the two houses agreed on a 15.6 percent cut, the largest enacted cut since the EPA lost 16 percent of its budget in 1986.
The 22 amendments proposed in H.R. 1 signaled how this group of freshmen Republicans, and pledge-signers, wanted to limit the EPA and climate-change research. Think Progress, a liberal blog, researched climate change statements by members of the 112th Congress, and found many members of Congress were doubtful of climate-change science. The Investigative Reporting Workshop matched the Think Progress statements with the list of members of Congress who signed the pledge from Nov. 16, 2010, and found 17 of the 20 Senators who had signed the pledge said they doubted climate change science, as did 78 of the 156 representatives who had signed the pledge.
Throughout the House’s debate on H.R. 1, several pledge signers proposed amendments that would limit government regulation of climate change.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican who represents the Kansas district where Koch Industries is headquartered, and is a signer of the No Climate Tax Pledge, received $10,000 from Koch Industries PAC in the 2010 election.
Once in the House, Pompeo proposed an amendment to H.R. 1 to cut $8.5 million, or roughly half the fiscal year 2010 budget, from the EPA’s greenhouse gas reporting program. Pompeo said at the time, “This data is the very foundation of the EPA’s effort to pursue its radical anti-jobs agenda.”
Another amendment was proposed by Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas, who wanted to ban using money to enforce a rule on cement manufacturing emissions. He was one of the first representatives to sign the No Climate Tax Pledge. Carter and two other Texas Republicans proposed an amendment that would have prohibited the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases emitting from stationary sources, such as factories.
Republican Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, also in that first group of representatives to sign the pledge, sponsored an amendment — which passed — to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from creating a National Climate Service, which was intended to be “a one-stop shop” for climate information.
Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia sponsored an amendment — which passed — that stopped funds for EPA guidelines on surface coal mining operations.
Republican Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota signed the pledge in 2010 and received $5,000 from KochPAC. She sponsored an amendment — which passed — to prohibit money from being used to change the air quality standards regarding coarse particulate matter (dust).
However, neither these amendments nor the bill survived in the Senate.
Many of the 85 freshman Republicans sponsored bills in the House to limit the EPA’s regulatory power or to expand oil and natural gas drilling. Koch Industries Public Sector LLC, the lobbying arm of Koch Industries, lobbied for H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, which would have rolled back the Supreme Court’s ruling that the EPA could regulate greenhouse gases. The bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan and co-signed by 92 Republicans (and three Democrats), 61 of whom also signed the pledge. Had it passed, the Energy Climate Prevention Act would have prevented the EPA from defining greenhouse gases as air pollutants and prohibited all federal research or programs on climate change research.
In June 2011, Rep. Griffith of Virginia also introduced the EPA Regulatory Relief Act, which would have allowed companies to ignore future EPA rules on industrial boiler and heater emissions while delaying the implementation of any rules that would constitute the “least burdensome regulatory alternative.” The bill eventually gained 101 Republican and 25 Democratic co-sponsors, 67 of whom signed the No Climate Tax Pledge.
Griffith said he signed the No Climate Tax pledge because he believes national limits on greenhouse-gas emissions harm Virginia’s coal industry and the jobs it provides. He said he didn’t feel any pressure to sign the pledge from Americans for Prosperity, which he credits with helping him win a seat in Congress in 2010 by campaigning against the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Rick Boucher.
Griffith also said that the $5,000 his campaign received from Koch Industries in June 2010 had no influence on his decision to sign the pledge less than two weeks later. Opposing President Obama’s “war on the coal industry” was a top issue during his campaign, he said.
“When I was running in early 2010, this was already on my agenda,” Griffith said. “I was talking about these things long before I even knew that the Koch brothers and AFP were involved in these issues.”
The pledge isn’t limited to those in Washington. Among other office-holders who signed it is Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, who declined to talk about her reasons for signing the pledge in August 2010. But through her press secretary, Barresi said in statement that the school district relies on property taxes from power plants and oil and gas production.
“Oklahoma’s schools depend on revenue from fossil fuels, and the destructive power of a tax on these fuels is not justified by questionable science,” Barresi said in the statement.
Contributing: Julia Broemmel