While a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline has been delayed yet again, the ultimate fate of the project is directly related to campaign finance. There is a war being waged through the medium of campaign finance that pits environmental concerns against the fossil fuel industry. The Keystone XL would transport more than 800,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The tar sands are the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth and a major contributor of climate change causing greenhouse gases.
Campaign finance ultimately has the ability to determine the outcome of many elections and perhaps even the fate of the Keystone XL. Two important Supreme Court decisions have made it easier to buy elections in the United States. The first is the recent ruling in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case and the other is the 2010 Citizens United ruling. These two rulings, along with lower court decisions, allow for virtually unlimited funds to determine the outcome of any race in the U.S.
The Koch brothers political influence
The influence of the Koch brothers extends to the Supreme Court. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have attended the Koch brothers’ secret retreats. Oil billionaires Charles and David Koch are some of the richest and best known examples of wealthy patrons who use their fortunes to interfere with the political process and protect their corporate interests. They are estimated to be worth about 25 billion each.
Koch Industries is the second-largest privately owned corporation in the U.S. In 2008 they played a prominent role in killing cap-and-trade legislation. In 2010 they succeeded in electing a slate of candidates committed to eliminate environmental and financial regulations. The Koch network spent more than $400 million on the 2012 election alone including $60 million on anti-Obama ads. The Koch brothers not only spent money on misinformation, they fostered close ties to the 2012 GOP presidential candidates.
The Kochs oppose environmental protections while they support the Keystone XL. Reports show that they stand to make $100 million from the Keystone XL’s construction. They benefit from the tar sands industry in a number of ways including transportation, refining and the sale of a variety of finished products. Koch Industries created, or collaborated with, other companies that are key players in the development of Alberta’s oil resources. They have also extensively lobbied Canada’s ruling Conservatives to limit government regulations.
In addition to lobbying for its oil, gas, mineral and chemical interests, Koch Industries and its subsidiaries support climate denial and oppose renewable energy. According to Greenpeace, the Kochs spent more than $50 million between 1998 and 2010 on climate science attacks. It is interesting to note that during this period, the number of Americans that believe in anthropogenic climate change declined substantially.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Koch Industries and its employees are the largest single oil and gas donor to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Together, they contributed $279,500 to 22 of the committee’s 31 Republicans, and $32,000 to five Democrats. Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee signed a pledge distributed by Americans for Prosperity to oppose legislation designed to regulate greenhouse gases.
Harry Reid recently suggested that the Koch brothers are using their financial might to advocate for the Keystone XL. Reid has accused the billionaire brothers of “buying America.”
“Anything that’s dirtying the environment, look around and they’re involved in it most of the time,” said Reid. “It’s hard to find anything dirtier than coal. But you look around, you got tar sands — that beats it.”
Wealthy environmentalists counter misinformation
The McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling also allows rich environmentalists to support ecologically concerned candidates across the U.S. Men like Tom Steyer are adamantly opposed to the Keystone XL and they are throwing their weight behind environmental causes like efforts to combat the Keystone XL. Steyer is the founder and co-managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, L.L.C., one of the country’s most successful investment firms. He is also the co-founder of Next Generation, an organization that combats climate change.
Steyer is a billionaire environmentalist who has vowed to spend as much as $100 million ($50 million of his own money and $50 million from other donors) on behalf of candidates who back climate change legislation. Steyer said he and his organization, NextGen Climate, “will continue to stand up for politicians and leaders who have the courage to stand up to special interests, like Big Oil, who are in this fight for their own bottom line.”
“First, since the pipeline would significantly increase carbon pollution, we know that it fails the climate test laid out by President Obama last year. Keystone XL is the economic key to unlocking the Alberta tar sands. As Canadian oil interests have confirmed, the oil industry cannot maximize the extraction of some of the world’s dirtiest oil without it,” Steyer said. “Second, our leaders must demand that in advance of any decision on the project, TransCanada finally come clean on whether all of the refined oil will stay in the United States. TransCanada has said the United States should support the pipeline because it would provide energy independence for the United States, but they have ducked, dodged and refused to commit to keeping the refined oil in our country.”
However, there is an important distinction to make between Stayer and the Koch brothers. As he explained, he’s not the left’s version of the Koch brothers. “That is not something I embrace. I think there are real distinctions between the Koch brothers and us,” Steyer said in an interview with POLITICO and The Washington Post taped for C-SPAN’s Newsmakers. While Steyer will use his vast personal fortune to make climate change a top priority in the upcoming midterm elections, unlike the Kochs, he is not getting involved with politics for personal gain nor is he a purveyor of misinformation.
Steyer does not have a complex multi-faceted subterfuge machine like the Koch brothers. He claims he will only get involved in eight midterm races, while the Koch brothers are likely to get involved in many more.
Despite the efforts of Steyer and others, the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision unfairly benefits corporate interests more than environmentalists. That is because there are far more very wealthy people beholden to the fossil fuel industry than there are environmentalists. Further, the vast sums of money made in hydrocarbons dwarfs the earnings of other individuals or corporations.
The Keystone XL has the support of some very wealthy patrons. Far more than the forces that oppose it. In the final analysis, it comes down to the choice between the democratic will of the people and the extraordinary power and wealth of the fossil fuel industry.
Nonetheless we have reason to hope. The Koch brothers’ massive spending did not succeed in ousting Obama in 2012. Further, a huge grassroots movement has managed to keep the Keystone at bay for more than three years.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: takomabibelot, courtesy flickr