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.

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