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Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 22, 2011, 12:20 pm

How the Koch Brothers Celebrate Earth Day

BY Michelle Chen

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Before the words "Koch Brothers" became an epithet among labor activists everywhere, the oil industry barons were already persona non grata to Mother Earth. This Earth Day, let us celebrate the myriad ways Koch has touched the lives of flora and fauna alike.

The Brothers Koch are primarily known as chief financiers of the anti-union showdown in Wisconsin. Koch-addicted Gov. Scott Walker and other Wisconsin conservatives pushed anti-union legislation that faithfully reflected Koch's neo-libertarian, anti-government agenda. The grassroots backlash drew a diverse coalition of public and private sector workers, civil rights groups, and other advocacy organizations from many demographics—so broadly offensive was the bill's attack on collective bargaining rights and critical social programs.

Wisconsin environmentalists, too, have fought on common ground with labor. As an oil mogul, Koch obviously has an interest in environmental deregulation (as seen in its battle against various anti-pollution policies, according to Think Progress). Walker's budget plan actually serves Koch's twin agendas of assaulting unions and the environment simultaneously. Nick Milroy at the Superior Telegram says the Governor wants to pull the plug on the budding green economy:

One of the governor’s first acts after being elected was to give federal train money to other states. He gave away $810 million in train money and 5,500 jobs to Illinois and other states. This action appears to be pay back to the oil, coal and gas industries that contributed $127,693 to Walker, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign,

Walker then proposed the most restrictive rules in the nation for wind energy. Wisconsin should be open to clean energy businesses like wind energy. The governor has already killed two projects and threatened 1,000 jobs.

In his budget repair bill, the governor attempted to sell state power plants with no bid contracts and canceled a biomass power plant that would have created jobs and helped wean us off fossil fuels. It makes no sense to sell these power plants and stop biomass when Wisconsin imports $16 billion a year in oil, gas, and coal each year, costing us over 300,000 jobs.

Forward-thinking labor groups (including some in Wisconsin) have often been at the forefront of pushing for green jobs, both as a movement toward long-term sustainability, as well as toward a more balanced and equitable framework for economic development.

The New York Times reported in February that Koch Industries had relatively few workers in the state and thus “no direct stake in the union debate. … The pending legislation would not directly affect its bottom line.” This gave the impression that Koch's attack on Wisconsin's labor movement was largely ideological—hence its connections to Americans for Prosperity, the faux-populist astroturf group behind the Tea Party.

However, by steamrolling labor, Koch—which has also poured millions into anti-science climate "skepticism" campaign groups—undermine the public's ability to resist ruthless profiteering. For big oil, any policy that disempowers public institutions—whether it's the regulatory system, public  unions, or the social programs and schools that nurture civil society—expands the corporate grip on our workplaces, neighborhoods, and governments.

The Koch team is quietly changing the political climate up north as well. Geoff Dembicki at the Tyee describes an intricate feedback loop in which Koch's profits from the horribly polluting Canadian tar sands indirectly feed into the anti-science, pro-corporate and anti-labor agenda on the other side of the border.

Together, America's fifth-richest citizens—each worth $21.5 billion—own Koch Industries, a refining, pipeline, chemical and paper conglomerate that manufactures common household products such as Brawny paper towels and Stainmaster carpets. They're also one of the biggest refiners of Alberta oil sands crude, handling an estimated 25 percent of all imports entering the U.S.

Anytime a clean energy law threatens to impact those operations, the Kochs fight back hard. Not content anymore to wage war from the sidelines, the brothers and their allies have now installed themselves at the heart of Republican power in Washington, D.C.

Earlier investigations by Dembicki have exposed other links between Koch and Canadian oil:

  • Minnesota-based Koch subsidiary Flint Hills Resources boasts of being “among the top processors of Canadian crude in the United States,” according to its website.
  • Incidentally, a pipeline that carries this oil runs straight into Wisconsin. So it's hardly surprising that Wisconsin lawmakers obediently scrubbed a low-carbon fuel standard from an energy bill in the face of heavy pressure from the Koch lobby last April.
  • Flint Hills was one of the biggest donors in the corporate opposition to the Proposition 23 ballot measure in California, which threatened to suspend the state's landmark climate change law. (The referendum, which was ultimately defeated, would have not only rolled back the state's emissions-reduction plan, but threatened major green job investments).

So lest you think that the Koch brothers are union-haters pure and simple, remember that stifling democracy, starving the government and smothering the ecosystem, are all bricks upholding Koch's oil empire.

This week, The Nation published an article co-written by In These Times Contributing Editor Mike Elk that revealed an audacious Koch-sponsored propaganda campaign last November in Washington State. 2012 will likely see the corporate-political nexus explode with even more Koch PR blitzes, now that the Citizens United ruling has unraveled political spending limits.

So get ready for more Wisconsin-like showdowns as the Koch Empire gears up to mow down any worker, community or habitat standing in its way.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet,, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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