How the Koch Brothers Are Bucking a Senate Probe Into Climate Change

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For lawmakers in Washington D.C., wrangling up the infamous Koch Brothers to participate in a U.S. Senate probe into climate research funding is proving more difficult than holding onto a live eel — that is, their refusal to cooperate is leading to major headaches.

The Senate investigation is looking into whether or not big businesses have been funding research that reaches outcomes meant to conjure up skepticism of climate change, and naturally, the Koch brothers came up on their list, as Al-Jazeera America reports. Because the Kochs own many businesses that are involved in the chemical and energy industries, the investigation requested that they actively cooperate.

But they are apparently not on board, as the Kochs’s general counsel and senior vice president Mark Holden informed Senators Barbara Boxer, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Edward Markey in a letter dated March 5. Holden explains that Koch Industries — which is a private company — would not be complying with the investigation’s requests, citing First Amendment protections.

“The activity and efforts about which you inquire, and Koch’s involvement, if any, in them, are at the core of the fundamental liberties protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Holden wrote. “In reviewing your letter, I did not see any explanation or justification for an official Senate Committee inquiry into activities protected by the First Amendment.”

Finally, for good measure, Holden added that “under the circumstances, we decline to participate in this endeavor and object to your apparent efforts to infringe upon and potentially stifle fundamental First Amendment activities.”

While it’s unclear whether the First Amendment argument will actually exempt the Kochs from the Senate probe, it’s not really all that hard to discern why the Kochs may not be interested in volunteering their time.

The Koch brothers are famous for having small-government views that champion low-levels of regulation and market interference, and cite those views as the very reason that they are unwilling to cooperate. The probe that is being conducted, after all, could very well result in findings that may not paint them in the best light. The Koch brothers and their business empire have a vested interest in ensuring that more regulations are not put into place, which may cost them money to comply with. There’s no denying that, and it’s hard to fault them for it — the purpose of their empire is to make them money, not appease bureaucrats or critics.

The issue is that the Koch brothers’ many businesses create externalities as a part of their operations — or, a benefit to one party (the Kochs) that has a cost that is incurred by another party (everyone else), who had no choice in the matter. These externalities take the form of greenhouse gas emissions, among other things, which ultimately have an effect on the environment — a common, delicate, and vastly important resource. As debate rages on Capitol Hill about how to actively handle the climate situation, and how to actively regulate large-scale polluters, scientific data and research into the effects of pollutants is as important as ever.

That is why the Senate is digging into the funding for these studies, hunting for what we can presume is a conflict of interest. If companies are paying scientists and researchers to reach specific conclusions, and those conclusions used to influence public policy decisions, then there is clearly a problem. That said, is there any way that the Senate can get the Kochs to cooperate? Probably not without a subpoena. With a Republican majority, and the Kochs being big-time Republican donors, it’s unlikely that will happen.

So, what do the Kochs have to gain by refusing to cooperate? While not wanting to volunteer their time is not necessarily an admission of wrongdoing, it will get their critics clamoring. The Kochs are not stupid, and likely are well aware of the dangers climate change pose.

The difference is that, following along with their libertarian ideology, they don’t think that government regulation is the way to solve the problem. And that is why they don’t want to participate. It’s unclear if they’ll somehow get wrangled into it, but for now, the Kochs are certainly happy to sit this one out.

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