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January 28, 2011

The Billionaire Brothers Who Make Us Sick

This weekend, two billionaire brothers will hold a private, closed-door meeting of elite and powerful donors and supporters of the oil industry. You can bet that along with conga lines and Jello shooters, the agenda at Charles and David Koch's little bash will include doing everything possible to ensure that nothing gets done that might result in clean energy, green jobs, or a healthy environment.

If you've heard of the Koch brothers, it's probably because of the article that Jane Mayer wrote about them for The New Yorker last year. As a rule, the Kochs prefer to keep a low profile and let their money do the talking -- and their combined wealth of an estimated $30 billion from their Koch Industries has a very loud voice. When you spend more each year than ExxonMobil to fund climate-opposition groups and obstruct environmental policy, your money is shouting like a street-corner evangelist. In the case of the Koch brothers, the false gospel is spread by think tanks, foundations, and (unfortunately) many of the new faces in Congress -- elected with a lot of help from the Kochs.

I don't know a word that means the exact opposite of environmentalist -- but then we didn't really need one until the Kochs came along. Greenpeace put out a shocking report focused on how Koch Industries and its owners fund the climate-denial machine, but it also gives some insight into why the Kochs are also going after all environmental safeguards as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Koch Industries has a long history of multi-million dollar fines from the EPA and Justice Department for everything from oil spills to dumping toxic chemicals. Even the Bush administration fined them for covering up the illegal dumping of 91 tons of carcinogenic benzene--though John Ashcroft got potential fines of $350 million knocked down to a $20 million slap on the wrist for falsifying documents.

What makes the Koch Brothers particularly scary, though, is not that they reflexively oppose any change that might hurt their own bottom line. That doesn't make them all that different from Massey Energy or Chevron or lots of other big polluters (Koch Industries was ranked in the top ten of air polluters in the U.S. by a University of Massachusetts study). What's different about the Kochs is that they subscribe to a radical libertarian philosophy that opposes any governmental safeguards to protect people or the environment. It's a grim vision of our country that few Americans would ever subscribe to if they could see it plainly, and yet -- thanks to the brothers' enormous wealth -- it's had an out-sized effect on both our government and our public discourse. It's like a hidden riptide that keeps pulling you out to sea no matter how hard you strike toward the shore.

But what makes riptides most dangerous is that people don't even know what they're fighting against. This week the Sierra Club will put a spotlight on the Koch brothers' agenda. I encourage you to join our Facebook campaign to help get the word out. Because when people can see their democracy being hijacked, they refuse to tolerate it.

Let me end on a positive note. We've trounced the Koch brothers before. Remember Prop 23 -- the California initiative to roll back efforts to fight climate change? The Koch brothers were one of the proposition's largest bankrollers, but California voters overwhelmingly rejected their vision. Now it's time for all Americans to stand up to the Koch brothers' dangerous efforts to keep us tied to the dirty energy sources which making people sick and destroy our nation's economic health. It's time this billionaire's good old boy's club got out of the way of the innovative new energy sources that are producing jobs and prosperity for the rest of us.


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Michael Brune

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