Fossil fuel profiteers wage war on Wisconsin’s children, with governor’s help

“How would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry — between say, bombing and strip mining, between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing? The difference seems to be only that in war the victimization of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is ‘accepted’ as a ‘trade-off.’ Were the catastrophes of Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez episodes of war or of peace? They were in fact, peacetime acts of aggression, intentional to the extent that the risks were known and ignored.”

-Wendell Berry

Despite the dispersal of the now infamous recorded phone conversation between Gov. Scott Walker and blogger Ian Murphy last week, not enough is being done to highlight the ties between the billionaire Koch brothers and Walker’s administration.

Brothers David and Charles Koch own and operate a web of oil, gas and petroleum pipelines in Wisconsin. They sell coal to an array of businesses and utilities in the state through a subsidiary called C. Reiss Coal. And they own a toilet paper plant in Green Bay. These fraternal fossil-fuel magnates were also the largest campaign contributors to Walker and the Republican Party in the last election cycle. In 2010 they poured millions of dollars into an unsuccessful attempt to defeat California’s landmark climate change law. Through their front group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Kochs supply major funding to the Tea Party movement. Currently AFP is running misleading television ads in Wisconsin in support of Walker and his plan to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees.

The Kochs recently opened a lobbying office a block from the capitol building in Madison. At least seven Koch lobbyists will now pressure the governor and legislators to weaken environmental safeguards, keep clean energy investment to a minimum and give even more tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry.

The Kochs’ business and political activities are all of a piece. Their strategy in both cases is to transfer more of the costs of business onto the backs of ordinary citizens. Rather than invest in cleaner sources of energy, the Kochs want to continue to sell us even greater amounts of coal, oil and gas with the result that we all pay for the asthma, lung cancer and other health problems that result from the burning of those substances. Air pollution is killing over 70,000 people per year in the United States alone, and sickening thousands more.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Rather than pay their fair share of taxes to clean up a fraction of the pollution they spew into the environment, repair the infrastructure they depend on to transport their products, and educate the kids that might someday grow up to work for them, the Koch’s and other corporate interests lobby elected officials to grant them even more tax breaks. Through willing politicians like Walker, they talk of shared sacrifice even as they themselves try their damndest to avoid any responsibility, let alone sacrifice.

Other Walker actions likely to benefit the Koch brothers:

  • Killing high-speed rail. Walker’s refusal of federal dollars to construct a high speed rail line between Wisconsin’s two largest cities means more Wisconsinites will buy the oil and petroleum the Koch brothers pump around our state.
  • Killing the wind industry. Mandating the largest setbacks in the nation, as pending legislation seeks to do, will mean Wisconsin will burn more Koch coal to produce electricity.
  • Selling off state-owned power plants. A provision of the so-called budget repair bill that passed the Assembly under dubious circumstances last week would allow no-bid sales of all of Wisconsin’s state-owned power plants. This recent job posting from an unnamed energy client for “plant managers at multiple power plants in Wisconsin” raises troubling questions.

Walker’s proposed budget, revealed yesterday in a capitol building locked down illegally while tens of thousands of peaceful citizens clamored to be let in, would: eliminate all state funding for municipal and county run recycling programs; end grant programs to develop new renewable energy projects, encourage energy efficiency for businesses and green products for manufacturers; slash general revenue funding to the Department of Natural Resources by 56 percent and 15.8 percent overall; end the program to preserve farmland, gut support for local transit while dramatically increasing funding for road building; and create new restrictions for how the Stewardship Fund can be used that will undercut efforts to protect recreational and wildlife habitat from development.

Walker says the state is broke, and he’s concerned our children will be saddled with crushing debt. That didn’t stop him from handing out millions in tax breaks and special favors to many of his corporate campaign contributors.

With one hand the Kochs work to distract the public by pitting working people against each other in a fight over the crumbs left them after rich corporations like those the Kochs own take what they want; with the other hand they rake in enormous profits while destroying our planet’s natural capital, and the health of its inhabitants.

Koch-backed Gov. Walker is not only trying to take away the rights of teachers and other public workers to collectively bargain, he aims to cut about $1 billion to schools in the next biennium. Worse, Walker is seeking to lower the revenue caps so local governments can’t try to raise local property taxes to make up some of the money slashed from the budget. I thought conservatives believed in local control. These guys belong in a Dickens novel, not in our state. Certainly not in our statehouse.

Despite the lower revenue caps, ordinary citizens will pay. They will pay with their jobs. They will pay with their homes, either through more foreclosures or through home equity that evaporates when housing values drop from a glut on the market. They will pay with lost revenue to their local businesses, because jobless people with little to no home equity have next to nothing to spend.

Walker and the new majority in the Legislature say middle-class public employees and teachers need to do their share to fix our state’s economic woes, when most of the responsibility for our budget problems lies at the feet of wealthy corporate executives like the Koch brothers, who profited handsomely through the economic downturn even as they laid off thousands of workers across the country, including 158 in Wisconsin.

As the Kochs and other fossil fuel barons have grown richer, most teachers and public employees have seen all of their hard-bargained salary and pension gains consumed by year-after-year, double-digit health insurance increases and the tumble the state employee pension funds took after giant banks and investment firms nearly brought down the entire economy with their shady dealings.

There will be those who claim commentators like me are waging class war by pointing out the excesses of rich and powerful people like the Koch brothers. But if there is a war it was started decades ago and the rich have been, without question, winning.

The war we should be most concerned about is the war the titans of the fossil fuel industry are waging against our children. Make no mistake, it is our children – and our children’s children – who will suffer most from the greed, and power brokering, of men like David and Charles Koch. They will suffer from poorer schools and they will suffer from poorer health. They will suffer from the ravages of climate change.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

And the entire planet will pay with them. But changing the Earth’s climate isn’t enough for the Kochs and their ilk. Now they want to fundamentally change the political climate of our state and nation — and undermine our democracy — so they can continue to pad their already bulging wallets at the expense of most of the rest of us.

As the recent prank call to the governor made clear, Walker is a puppet general in this war – a tool of the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry. This will surely be his legacy if he doesn’t stop cutting funding to schools and instead start cutting the strings that bind him to profiteering billionaires like the Koch brothers.



  1. Rick, I think this is a comprehensive and coherent overview of what is happening. When Republicans are bought and paid for, when Democrats are ineffective, what is the solution to this massive government malfeasance? Is it time for peasants with pitchforks to storm the castle gates? Oh, wait — except for the pitchfork part, that’s what we’ve been doing. A manure fork might seem to be appropriate in this application, but it is heavy, and the tines are too close together to penetrate easily. The four-tined utility fork might be a more practical choice.

  2. I appreciate the feedback, John. I understand farmers from around the state will be converging on the capitol next Saturday, on their tractors, to show the governor what they think of his actions thus far. Perhaps they’ll have their fully loaded manure spreaders in tow.

  3. Thanks for this amazing, comprehensive view of what the Kochs and Gov. Walker are really up to. You are doing a tremendous public service. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thank you for the feedback, Julene, and for your excellent work on behalf of wide open spaces and biodiversity.

  5. Thoughtful and well said. I’m going to send the link to your post to people at work and other friends & family. Also shared it on Facebook, so hopefully many more will read this. It’s so important to understand these issues! Thank you Rick.

  6. Very kind. Many thanks.

  7. Rick, this is invaluable information all collected in one place, and I am going to share it with friends. Thanks for your work!

  8. Thank you, Priscilla. I’m sure the Koch tentacles reach into your state, too. Keep up the great work there.

  9. Thanks so much for writing this! Great information, though maddening. I just don’t understand why this isn’t being reported more widely.