Koch Brothers Sneak Anti-Wind Op-Ed Past New York Times
In the run-up to the perennial debate in Congress over whether to extend a tax credit for the wind industry, The New York Times ran a provocatively headlined—and misleading—op-ed column denouncing it as corporate welfare.
Giving Billions to the Rich was a broadside against Congress' end-of-the-year tax extenders package, which renews temporary corporate tax breaks, and it singled out the wind production tax credit as one of the most egregious.
The Nov. 23, 2015 column was written by Marc Short and Andy Koenig, both from an organization called Freedom Partners. They pointed out that the package the U.S. Senate was considering at the time would revive a tax credit for new wind energy facilities during their first 10 years of operation, which would cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $10.5 billion over the next decade. Congress had let the tax break expire at the end of 2014.
"The supporters of this 23-year-old credit initially argued that it was necessary to kick-start a nascent industry," they wrote. "Yet Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and others say wind power is cost-competitive with other energy sources. So why are taxpayers still forced to subsidize it?"
Besides the fact that a tax credit does not force taxpayers to "subsidize," i.e. give money to, the wind industry, Short and Koenig shrewdly confined their argument to temporary tax breaks. By doing so, they were able to avoid mentioning the fact that the wind industry's more-established competitors—particularly fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change—enjoy permanent tax breaks and subsidies that are significantly larger.
The oil and gas industry, for example, has been receiving an average of $4.86 billion in annual tax breaks and subsidies in today's dollars since 1918, according to an analysis by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. On top of that, Congress exempted natural gas developers from key provisions of at least seven major environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. That amounts to a substantial subsidy, too, by passing along any cleanup bill to taxpayers.
Renewable energy technologies, by contrast, averaged only $370 million a year in tax breaks between 1994 and 2009, according to DBL. The 2009 stimulus package did provide $21 billion for wind, solar and other renewables, but that support barely began to balance the scales that have tilted toward oil and gas for nearly 100 years and coal for more than two centuries.
The Koch Brothers' Bank
So who are Marc Short and Andy Koenig? The Times identified them only as "the president and senior policy adviser, respectively, at Freedom Partners, which advocates for free-market policies."
What the Times neglected to explain is that Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce (its full name) is a major pass-through funding arm of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch—owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries—and Short and Koenig's Times op-ed is just a small part of a Koch brothers-financed campaign targeting wind and other renewable energy technologies.
Founded in November 2011, Freedom Partners functions as the Kochs' de facto bank, disbursing contributions from wealthy conservatives to a network of nonprofit "free-market" groups whose goals include rolling back public health, environmental and workplace protections. Unlike a foundation or a political action committee (PAC), Freedom Partners is classified as a trade association, enabling it to raise money without disclosing the names of its donor members, although the amounts and recipients of its grants are public. In June 2014, the organization expanded its arsenal by launching a Super PAC, Freedom Partners Action Fund, which can raise unlimited sums of money and run ads advocating for or against candidates, but it has to divulge its donors.
Freedom Partners Action Fund, whose top donors include the Koch brothers and hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer, raised $29 million and spent $24 million during the 2014 election cycle in support of Republican candidates. But that's chump change compared to Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce's war chest. Between 2012 and 2014, it raised $418 million from its more than 200 anonymous members and distributed more than $387 million of it to dozens of organizations. Much of that money paid for television attack ads, but a chunk of it went to climate science denier groups, including the American Energy Alliance, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Club for Growth, Heritage Action for America (the Heritage Foundation's political arm), and the 60 Plus Association. Those groups—along with Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation grantees Competitive Enterprise Institute and Frontiers of Freedom—were signatories on a July 27 letter to House members urging them to support a bill that would kill the wind production tax credit (PTC).
The letter claimed the proposed legislation "protects Americans from the large costs of an out-of-control subsidy." Since the PTC was created, the letter went on to disingenuously assert, "taxpayers have sent billions of dollars to large multinational corporations in the wind industry."
The bill referenced in the letter, "The PTC Elimination Act," was sponsored by Mike Pompeo of Wichita, Kansas—home of Koch Industries—and Kenny Marchant of Texas. Pompeo is Congress' top recipient of Koch campaign money, and ever since he took office in 2011 he has been introducing bills to scuttle the tax credit because, as he says, the wind industry should "compete on its own." As of November 17, the bill had 53 co-sponsors. Forty-six of them, including Marchant, received contributions from Koch Industries over the last five years.
Of course, no one would expect the Times to explain all of that, but the paper should have at least mentioned Freedom Partners' Koch connection. Beyond that, the paper also should have fact-checked its debatable description of the organization. Freedom Partners and other Koch-funded groups all claim to promote "free-market" policies, but they don't complain about the massive subsidies fossil fuel companies receive. For the Koch network, the wind production tax credit is a "wasteful handout," but eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for the oil and gas industry, as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform once put it, would constitute "a massive tax hike on a vital sector of American industry."
That hardly qualifies as a consistent free-market position.
The Times' Opaque Transparency Policy
Coincidentally, a debate over how the Times identifies op-ed contributors was sparked four years ago by a column attacking the wind industry. In June 2011, the newspaper ran a column by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Robert Bryce that made a case for natural gas by misstating facts about renewables, and the Times failed to mention in Bryce's bio that Manhattan Institute funders ExxonMobil and the Kochs are in the natural gas business. A few months later, the Checks and Balances Project, a government and industry watchdog group, sent a letter to the Times criticizing the paper for failing to report op-ed writers' funding sources, citing Bryce's column as a prime example. Signed by more than 50 journalists and educators, the letter called on the paper to "set the nation's standard by disclosing financial conflicts of interest that their op-ed contributors may have at the time the piece is published."
The paper's public editor at the time, Arthur S. Brisbane, responded in a column, The Times Gives Them Space, but Who Pays Them? "[T]he issue of authorial transparency is an important one," Brisbane wrote, "albeit one that isn't always simple." He then turned to editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal to explain the complexities.
Op-ed writers have to sign an agreement that states: "You agree to disclose to the Times any financial interest you may have in the subject matter of the article," Rosenthal said. Besides that, "story editors ask each writer if there is any real or perceived material or financial interest we should know about." Finally, Rosenthal said, author bios are written for "clarity, transparency and brevity."
Brisbane recommended that the Times do more. "So, while I recognize that the Times has limited space in print to provide more disclosure, I believe it should do more to help readers learn about outside op-ed contributors," he wrote. "In print, besides noting prominent past achievements, author [bios] should include the writer's current paid role. ... On NYTimes.com, the Times should include links to [an author's] organizational ties so readers can investigate, if they wish. Finally, it would be useful if the Times required contributors to provide a document listing all current paid positions, and publish a link to the document."
Did the Times take Brisbane's advice? Apparently not.
Wind Wins This Round, But More Transparency Needed
Fortunately, the Koch campaign to break wind was foiled this time around by some last-minute horse trading on Capitol Hill. End-of-year negotiations over the omnibus government spending bill extended the wind production tax credit through 2019 in exchange for lifting the 40-year-old federal ban on oil exports. That's good news for the wind industry.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the production tax credit has helped quadruple wind-powered electricity since 2008, from 16,700 megawatts to more than 70,000 MW at the end of last year, enough to power more than 19 million homes. The tax break also has helped drive down the cost of wind power by 66 percent over the last six years, and Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas—Mike Pompeo's state—now get more than 20 percent of their electricity from wind. Nine other states get more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind, and a recent Department of Energy report concluded that the U.S. should be able to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030.
The omnibus deal was also good news for Koch Industries, because lifting the ban on oil exports likely will boost its business. After all, it owns 4,000 miles of pipelines as well as refineries in Minnesota and Texas that, according to the company, together can process more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The bad news is that, even after the debate prompted by an anti-wind op-ed back in 2011, The New York Times continues to provide a platform for special interest mouthpieces and fails to disclose their benefactors. To be sure, the Times is hardly alone. But it's especially puzzling when it comes to the Times, whose editorial board routinely rails against "the scourge of dark money" in the U.S. political system and calls for greater transparency.
The Times should hold itself to the same standard. If its editorial page editors insist on publishing special interest propaganda, they should let their readers know who is paying for it. In this case, an op-ed with the headline Giving Billions to the Rich is indeed remiss if it doesn't mention the fact that the covert sponsors of the column, the Koch brothers, are among those benefiting the most from government largesse.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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