Dark political money imperils Earth’s future

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Political contributions designed to weaken environmental regulations can be difficult to track. They’re moved through a network of right-wing campaigns, foundations, think tanks and political groups.

Americans for Prosperity is  one of many such groups.

The State Policy Network is another, a web of 60-plus think tanks — or “stink tanks,” as they were called in a recent exposé by the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is yet another group. The organization of lawmakers, corporations and interest groups drafts and promotes “model” legislation on a range of issues. ALEC’s best-known laws are the anti-union, anti-voter and anti-immigration laws that were approved by legislatures around the country with the votes of lawmakers who receive huge donations from ALEC members. ALEC’s “stand your ground” model bill, a bonanza for the manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, is also well known.

But in 2014, ALEC is betting its seemingly unlimited supply of cash on a slew of measures aimed at weakening environmental protections, cutting renewable energy, increasing reliance on coal and dismantling energy efficiency standards.

ALEC’s “polluter agenda,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy, includes measures to:

• Oppose the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases from mobile sources.

• Give Congress the authority to block enforcement of federal protections on clean air and water and safeguards for mine workers.

• Create hurdles for state agencies attempting to regulate carbon gases.

• Oppose protections on carbon dioxide emissions.

• Prevent the EPA from overruling state permits for coal mining.

• Give legal protection to corporations against victims of lead poisoning.

• Privatize public water and sewage services and prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to meet labor standards.

• Oppose waste-reduction and mandatory recycling laws.

• Authorize state governments to open federal public land for oil, gas and coal exploration.

• Require that state environmental protections be approved by a corporate-backed panel.

• Criminalize environmental and animal-welfare activism.

ALEC, AFP and SPN all have ties to conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose preferred front groups have invested far more in the effort to deny, skepticize and belittle the significance of global warming than ExxonMobil, according to an analysis of information from Greenpeace, the Center for Media and Democracy and other sources.

“Like a play on Broadway, the climate change countermovement has stars in the spotlight — often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians — but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers in the form of conservative foundations,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and the author of a report on climate change denials published in Climatic Change. “If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what’s going on behind the scenes.”

What’s going on behind the scenes is wealthy polluters are investing in climate change denial and opposing environmental policies to protect their wealth and industries.

Koch Industries, a multinational group of companies invested in petroleum, chemicals, energy, gas liquids, asphalt and other polluting products, is the 10th worst air polluter in the United States, according to the Political Economy Research Institute. KI releases about 200,000 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide annually.

And Koch Industries has a long record of environmental crimes and violations. Greenpeace offered a review: 

• A $1.7 million fine by the EPA and a $500 million commitment to correct pollution violations in seven states.

• Millions of gallons of spilled oil from Koch pipelines.

• A $25 million settlement in 2001 for falsifying records for oil collected on federal and Native American lands.

• A $20 million settlement in 2000 for falsifying documents relating to a major release of the carcinogen benzene.

• A 1996 explosion, caused by a leaking gas pipeline, that killed two people.

Influencing local codes

Democratic state Rep. Brett Hulsey woke up one day after the spring election with a sunny outlook on the results in Iron County.

There, on April 1, Victor Ouimette, Brad Matson and Karl Krall defeated incumbent supervisors on the county board. The three were among seven candidates branded by Americans for Prosperity as opponents of Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin. AFP has strong ties to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, who own Koch Industries.

AFP invested in two full-color campaign mailings seeking to elect candidates in favor of the mine and to defeat those seen as opponents, although Krall and Ouimette had told news media they support the mine.

After the election, Hulsey pitched a proposal to create a Penokee Hills Conservation Area, noting that three people opposed by the Koch brothers won on Election Day.

“The Penokee Hills should be conserved forever, not strip mined by a big campaign donor,” said Hulsey, a member of the jobs and tourism committees in the Assembly. 

He argued that a conservation area could promote sustainable jobs, conserve recreational areas, promote sustainable forestry, protect drinking water sources, fisheries and wildlife habitat and also protect sacred Native American sites from destruction.

“Northern Wisconsin needs jobs now, not more arguing and lawsuits,” Hulsey said.

Proponents of the mine, which would be about 4 miles long and hundreds of feet deep, say it could create 700 long-term jobs. 

Opponents of the mine say the project, located about 7 miles south of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation, would pollute pristine rivers and local groundwater.

Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Scott Walker, cleared the way for the operation by stripping down the state’s mining regulations. Now, to some degree, the project’s future will be determined at the county level, where the county board and Gogebic are negotiating over zoning regulations.

County board races typically don’t catch the attention of national political groups, and Americans for Prosperity’s interest in Iron County has environmentalists across the United States concerned that the Koched-up organization — and other national right-wing groups with records of distorting the facts and manipulating the science on environmental issues — will plant more campaigns on local turfs.

“This is trouble, if these guys are moving into our towns and cities and wanting to influence local codes and zoning regulations and land use plans,” said environmental activist Tom Geske of Madison. 

The Koch brothers are significant supporters of Walker and his gubernatorial bids. Before the recall election, David Koch told the Palm Beach Post in Florida, “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”

Rubber Dodo

Last fall, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group, took notice of the Koch brothers’ work and gave them an award: the 2013 Rubber Dodo.

“When it comes to pulling levers behind the scenes for those who wreck our climate, destroy wild places and attempt to kill our last remaining wildlife, the Koch brothers are in a class by themselves,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the CBD. “These guys are the poster children for despicable corporate greed. The Koch brothers get the 2013 Rubber Dodo for a terrible global legacy that could take hundreds of years to undo.”

The award gets its name for the dodo, perhaps the most famous extinct species on Earth after the dinosaurs. The bird evolved over millions of years with no natural predators and eventually lost the ability to fly. Having never known predators, it showed no fear of the humans who found it on Mauritius, or the animals that accompanied them to the island in the Indian Ocean in 1598. The bird’s trusting nature led to its rapid extinction — by 1681, the dodo had disappeared. 

Lesson learned?