Libertarian billionaire Charles Koch has spent his entire adult life proclaiming the virtues of individual liberty and personal property rights. But when Americans decide they want to drive emissions-free electric vehicles, or commute by light rail, liberty should only go so far, he apparently thinks.
Koch, who has worked to eradicate government as we know it for decades, is backing burdensome government fees on electric car drivers, fees that exceed those of the gas taxes the owners of fossil fuel-burning vehicles pay at the pumps. In echoes of fights against emissions-free vehicles from decades ago, the Koch network and other fossil fuel interests, including ExxonMobil and multiple oil and gas trade associations, are trying to make sure the American transportation system stays dominated by climate change-hastening vehicles.
“Fossil fuel interests control 90 percent of the transportation fuel market in the U.S. and are really feeling threatened,” Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the electric vehicle initiative at the Sierra Club, told Politico.
With the help of model legislation written by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a policy network that connects state lawmakers with lobbyists to craft legislation that boosts corporate profits, lawmakers in 26 states have passed or proposed onerous electric vehicle registration fees. Current electric vehicle fees in Arkansas and Wyoming will cost residents nearly twice the gas tax burden by 2025 as fuel economy standards for traditional vehicles improve. Proposed legislation in Missouri would make electric vehicle owners pay more than three times the taxes that regular car owners pay.
According to a Sep. 11 Consumer Reports study, the fees “[punish] drivers for choosing a zero-emission alternative to traditional gas-burning vehicles.” A Consumer Reports survey found that 63% of aspiring car owners are interested in purchasing electric cars, but without the tax credit, that interest could wane.
The report also finds that these taxes are a poor way to make up for state highway funding shortfalls. State legislators claim the electric vehicle taxes are intended to replace declining gas tax revenues, but electric car usage is not widespread and won’t generate nearly enough capital to do so.
The Charles Koch Foundation gave ALEC over $1.7 million from 2015-2017, and the Charles Koch Institute added $101,000 during those three years, according to tax records reviewed by Sludge.
Other oil and gas groups such as the industry’s biggest lobbying force, the American Petroleum Institute, and the powerful American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers are also unloading cash to prevent the spread of gasless vehicles. For example, API joined with the Koch political network’s primary advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, to oppose utilities’ electric vehicle investments in Illinois and Iowa.
An Oil and Gas Industry Favorite Tries to Thwart Electric Vehicle Tax Credits
Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, whose state imposes the second-highest current electric vehicle tax, recently sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging him to block a bipartisan bill to renew federal electric vehicle tax credits, a move that the Wall Street Journal editorial board applauded.
Here’s some context: Over Barrasso’s 11-year Senate career, oil and gas PACs have donated over $670,000 to his campaigns, more than any other industry, and during the 2018 election cycle, these PACs contributed $314,000 to his Senate campaign, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. The PACs of companies such as Koch Industries ($30,000), Chevron ($30,000), and ExxonMobil ($27,000) are some of Barrasso’s largest corporate contributors.
As he benefits from fossil fuel campaign money, Barrasso is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The senator “parroted Koch talking points” in a Fox News op-ed and on the Senate floor earlier this year, according to DeSmog, as he reintroduced his bill to quash the electric vehicle tax credit and impose federal fees on “alternative fuel vehicles.”
Barrasso is also personally invested in a fossil fuel company. The senator owns between $250,000 and $500,000 in Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s mega-conglomerate which owns a natural gas pipeline and gas and coal power subsidiaries. Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary MidAmerican Energy Company does plan to build electric vehicle charging stations in Iowa. The company’s PACs have donated $35,500 to his Senate campaigns.
Attacking Clean Public Transit
Koch’s anti-clean travel campaign doesn’t stop at electric cars. His network is also working to block local communities from building light rail systems that their residents support. On Aug. 27, Phoenix residents overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure supported by Koch-funded advocacy groups that would have killed the city’s planned light rail system.
Building a Better Phoenix, which campaigned in support of the anti-light rail measure, claimed to be “a CITIZEN LED EFFORT,” but the dark money nonprofit appears to have been established and aided by the Koch-backed American Free Enterprise Club (AFEC), which has also spent money to elect anti-solar members to the state’s Corporation Commission, which regulates public utility companies. AFEC President Scot Mussi helped draft the Arizona ballot measure, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Koch’s Americans for Prosperity funds AFEC, having donated $110,000 in 2017 and $100,000 in 2016, according to tax records. Koch-backed groups American Encore and American Commitment gave AFEC $450,000 and $230,000 respectively in 2014. AFEC has also received millions from Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest public utility. In 2014, Pinnacle West secretly funneled $5.8 million into AFEC’s bank account.
In another connection to the Koch network, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club successfully lobbied the state legislature, whose members it had helped elect, to spend millions each year to finance the Charles Koch Foundation-funded free-market academic centers at multiple public universities. AFEC’s founding director, GOP megadonor Randi Kendrick, teamed up with Koch to found and fund one of these centers.
The Koch network has fought light rail in other localities. Americans for Prosperity has canvassed against seven light rail ballot proposals in recent years, successfully derailing clean public transit in Nashville. Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-funded groups have opposed over two-dozen other transit measures around the country in states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Utah.
In an era of dangerous climate change when similar industrialized nations in Europe and Asia have modern high-speed rail networks and electric vehicle mandates to phase out gas-guzzling cars, not to mention booming solar power industries, the U.S. continues to be held back by the corporate and political interests of influential power brokers such as Koch — in part because of lax campaign finance laws that allow outside groups with unlimited funding to put their fingers on the scales of local, state, and federal elections.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.