Bill Koch, coal, and political cash


The cynic in me hardly batted an eye when I read recently that Republican House Speaker John Boehner is raking in coal-stained cash. Nor did I spill my coffee when I noticed that one of Boehner’s big new donors is a Koch brother. My interest was piqued, however, when I saw that it wasn’t David or Charles Koch -- the infamous Tea Partier billionaires -- who were forking out for the Republican leader, but the “other” brother, Bill.

Bill Koch owns Oxbow, a global energy conglomerate that operates a big coal mine in Western Colorado’s North Fork Valley (just up the road from the High Country News HQ) and Gunnison Energy, which is drilling for natural gas in the same region. He hopes to move his coal mine to another seam just down valley and is in the process of getting permits for the move. The billionaire's other assets also include a high country ranch in the mountains between Paonia and Aspen, and he has been buying up more real estate in the region.

Like his brothers, Bill is known for contributing to political campaigns. Unlike those of his brothers, Bill’s donations have not been constrained by ideology -- his cash has gone to politicians as varied as Richard Pombo, Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, John McCain and, yes, Al Gore. He, his wife and employees of Oxbow donated some $70,000 to the campaign of now ex-U.S. Rep. John Salazar, a Colorado Democrat and brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. So the tendency by the media and activists to group Bill in with his hard-right brothers is clearly unfair. Bill may be an opportunist, but you can’t call him an ideologue, and he’s had a long history of strife with his more notorious brothers.

That’s why I was surprised to see so much cash going to Boehner, who, if not born a right-winger has become one thanks to Tea Party pressure. According to Federal Election Commission records, Bill Koch has donated no less than $80,200 to Boehner’s war chest since the beginning of 2010. He’s given another $65,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and just about that much to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The Oxbow PAC, according to figures from, is accumulating cash and not spending much, yet. But it has already given $3,500 to Rep. Scott Tipton, the Republican who defeated John Salazar in the home district of Oxbow’s coal mines and gas rigs, to help his 2012 effort. Aside from a small amount here and there, Koch and Oxbow’s historic support for Democrats appears to have dried up since the last election.

So what does this mean? Has Bill jumped into the same political corral as his brothers? Or is he just betting on the side that looks like it’s going to win? Is political influence just another expensive collectible for Koch, a gem in a set that includes the only known photo of Billy the Kid, Old West towns or bottles of Jeffersonian wine?

Maybe it’s a lot simpler than all of that: “We are a big supporter of John Boehner. We think he's good for business,” said Oxbow spokesman Brad Goldstein to the Wall Street Journal. “ ... this administration has been rather harsh on the industry.”

When I ponder that statement -- along with the increasing partisanship of Koch’s donations -- here’s what I hear: This election season is going to be awash with cash from all over the place, most notably the fossil fuel industry (aided by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision); and the urge to stop environmental regulations of any sort is going to become more partisan than ever before. I know it’s hard to remember, but it wasn’t so long ago that environmental protection (as well as environmental degradation) was somewhat of a bipartisan cause. Increasingly, however, the Republican party has established itself as the anti-green party, leaving the Democrats -- quite halfheartedly in most cases and often not at all -- to take up the enviro torch.

On the one hand, that’s just politics. On the other hand, it’s likely to play out in places like the North Fork Valley, where Oxbow is clearly going to be looking to get some return from its investment. And that's my concern, that projects such as Oxbow's new coal mine will be considered by politicians thinking about their campaign coffers, not the merits for or against the project itself. And so, I go back to my un-spilled coffee, and hope for a better day tomorrow.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor to High Country News. He is the magazine's former editor-in-chief and is now a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Boulder, Colo.

Image courtesy Flickr user MelvinSchlubman.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Sep 19, 2011 07:58 AM
One thing I've learned in other places where paying bribes is commonplace is you pay the money to the person who controls the permission for whatever it is you wish to do. In that sense bribery is non partisan. I think this system of legalized bribery we live under will come to no good eventually.
Roy Brophy
Roy Brophy Subscriber
Sep 19, 2011 12:06 PM
Oh, well. I guess the North Fork is off my retirement list. Is there anyplace around Grand Junction that the Greed Heads have not raped or plan to?
Jens Lange
Jens Lange
Sep 21, 2011 06:55 AM
What bull. The valley is a great place to live. Coal mining and agriculture have been the mainstays of the North Fork Valley for over 100 years; ever since Mr.s Wade and Hotchkiss and their families settled here. Friut trees were brought over the mountain from Gunnison and coal mining augmented folks through the winters. . Go to the Paonia library and check out the 1913 USGS book and review the discriptions of the dozens of coal mines that stretched in the valley from Cederedge, through Hotchkiss, Paonia, Bowie, Somerset, then continuing further up To Anthracite and Coal Creeks. Heck there were even power plants in the upper North Fork. Farming and mining have coexisted for 100 years plus, and there is no reason that this can not continue. I'm a miner; my family buys local produce at a CSA, we purchase and pick fruit at local orchards, we drink local wines, we buy local meat. Just purchased two lambs ate the Delta County Fair . The mining does no harm to the local agriculture; IT augments it. It provides dollars into the local economy so alot of the local products are purchased here in the valley. Otherwise; unfortunately the local farmers have to sell their wares in Aspen, Crested Butte, Teluride, etc. See those folks are charged and pay alot more for there agricultural products. Of the three coal mines in the valley, two are the #1 and; #2 tax payers in Delta County, two are the #1 and; #2 taxpayers in Gunnison County. Did you know the coal that comes out of the North Fork Valley is super compliant. It is some of the BEST steam coal in the entire US. These local mines employee over 1000 miners and their families. It's something for the North Fork Valley to be proud of. The coal miners are proud of this as well proud of the great place we live; including the orchards, vineyards, hunting and fishing spots, camping sites, biking trails, whitewater activities. Do you how many Western Slope business's depend on them. All rock dust comes form local soucres in Glenwood or Delta. Roof bolts come from neighboring Utah, ventilation tubing is manufactured in Grand Junction, equipment is rebuilt and serviced in Delta, Grand Junction and Utah; many other suppliers are in the same towns. DO SOME RESEARCH. A local fellow, Tom Wills from Hotchkiss could help you.We have it all here and COAL MINING and; AGRICULTURE DO CO-EXIST. THE PROOF IS THE NORTH FORK VALLEY. WE ARE THE NORTH VALLEY.
We are just hardworking Americans, We are coal miners; alot us us are Democrats.
JW Westman
JW Westman Subscriber
Sep 22, 2011 02:35 PM
Ahhh, The Supreme Court Decision Citizens United has shown how money has and will again corrupt our political process. Our Supreme Court here in Montana heard it's very own Citizens United case on 9-21-2011. Back to the days of the copper kings. The Kochs and others are the new Wm. Clarks only now they are handing out more than crisp $100 bills. An informed, involved citizenry is what makes government work for all, a complacent one does the opposite. JW Westman Montana
Kevin McGruther
Kevin McGruther
Sep 28, 2011 02:30 PM
I don't know about Aspen or Telluride but the Delta and Montrose County agriculturalists actually LIKE coming to Crested Butte to vend. They make good value for their product and many of our farmers vend only the Crested Butte Farmers Market preferring to bypass larger civic areas along the way because they enjoy the break away from the Western Slope. Our families and children are growing up together. We are a friendly, harmonious operation that has facilitated healthy inter-county economy and subsequently Colorado's economy to a tremendous degree. We have created not only jobs on "Main Street" in the face of the global economic downturn but are actively building state infrastructure and small business development by requiring all of our vendors to have an individual business license thereby collectively creating more revenue for the state of Colorado. To speak of any single taxpayer as being dominant is to speak in favor of a slave master at the expense of the collective body of producers and does not represent a healthy economic viewpoint. The strength of American economy has historically been its diversity, its multitudes of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Every time the American economy or sectors of it have deviated from multitudes of diversity to single entity worship there has been catastrophe.

It is fair to be proud of an occupation, no one wants to realize that perhaps their occupation might be harmful to themselves or others. However, it is unfair to allow that pride to blur scientifically validated reality. Economy is the nature of using the resources of an area to improve the general well-being for self and others. If it is found that a certain resource utilization is toxic and inhibits the general well-being it is criminal to persist in the activity. Coal miners say, "Behind every light switch is a coal miner." But facts of biology reveal that, "Behind every coal miner there is a legacy of increased carcinogenic interaction with the place we all live and a deteriorated environment for ourselves and the next generations." While we all need to get by in this world some of us are more ready to go down for Koch than others.
Kevin McGruther
Kevin McGruther
Sep 28, 2011 02:40 PM
FYI - Coal isn't the only poisonous energy economy:[…]onmental_and_health_effects