Bay Area Air District lawsuit: Clearing out the file cabinets, but not necessarily the air

Lawsuit by Agency Whistleblower Alleges Widespread Document Destruction at Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Sarah Steel and Michael Bachmann at a press conference accouncing their suit against the air district. Steele later settled. - PHOTO BY BOBBY LEE
Sarah Steel and Michael Bachmann at a press conference accouncing their suit against the air district. Steele later settled.  Photo by Bobby Lee

A veteran employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has filed a lawsuit charging that the district destroyed important public records about air pollution, then fired him because he objected.

Through interviews and court documents, Michael Bachmann and coworker Sarah Steele describe an agency culture that accommodated large polluters, shredded records of emission violations, withheld such documents from the public, and violated a legal agreement to preserve its data. A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the case.

Bachmann had worked for the air district for more than a dozen years when he was asked, in 2014, to take charge of a massive overhaul of the agency’s records. The district was planning to move its headquarters and wanted to inventory, streamline, and digitize its files in preparation for the move.

To help with this task, Bachmann hired his longtime friend Steele, who had experience creating and managing records systems. While she organized paper and microfilm documents, he worked with photographic images stored on computers, creating a digital system to organize and digitize them so they would be searchable.

“My goal was to make sure everybody could see the history,” Steele said. Air District planners need records of past experience to guide future decisions about controlling air pollution. In addition, the district is required by law to retain many types of documents as public records. Steele said part of her motivation for this work came from growing up in El Sobrante, unaware of how pollution from nearby refineries was harming the health of her community. “So few people are aware of the horrific pollution going on in our backyards.” She said it’s important for people to know the history of pollution on a particular piece of land — such as the site of the notorious Berkeley polluter, Pacific Steel Casting, which recently closed.

Bachmann is now restricted from discussing his suit by a recent court-imposed confidentiality rule, but he told his story in interviews before the rule was put into effect. His attorneys, Gary Gwilliam and Jayme Walker, provided additional details in the brief they filed in August 2017 in Contra Costa Superior Court against the district and six senior staff members. Steele, who also was fired in February 2016, was originally part of the lawsuit, but in June of this year she accepted a cash payment to settle her case. Steele and Bachmann, now a couple, were struggling financially after both losing their jobs, and Steele wanted to be free to talk about the case.

As Bachmann and Steele worked on organizing the records, they began noticing things that disturbed them. In the summer of 2015, she said, “giant dumpsters began to appear” in the office. When Steele looked in the dumpsters, she found, among other things, reports of refinery “flaring” incidents, notices of violations of air-pollution standards, and documents pertaining to current litigation — all records that she thought should be kept. In August, according to the lawyers’ brief, an employee in the enforcement division also told Bachmann that documents related to litigation against Pacific Steel Casting were being improperly destroyed.

At around the same time, Steele was working on sending paper and microfilm records to a contractor to digitize. According to the lawyers’ brief, one day air district Director of Enforcement Wayne Kino and attorneys Brian Bunger and Bill Guy “approached [Steele] in an aggressive manner and told her they wanted to destroy microfiche documents containing many records of violations of air quality.” Steele thought that request was illegal and reported it to Bachmann.

In November, Bachmann told senior executives that records were being illegally destroyed and asked that they send documents to him first, rather than putting them straight into dumpsters. In an interview before the confidentiality order was imposed, Bachmann said Bunger overruled this request. He quoted the lawyer as saying, “If staff accidentally destroys these records, that’s OK, because they can only hurt us in the long run.”

Meanwhile, Steele said, boxes of paper and microfilm documents were being shipped to a storage facility in Richmond. But some records were withheld from these shipments, sometimes with explanations, sometimes not. She said the process seemed “haphazard.” She continued to send records to be digitized, but senior officials told her not to digitize certain documents, including records in one huge, locked cabinet that Steele nicknamed the “magic cabinet.”

Steele said Rochelle Reed, public records coordinator, stated in a deposition to the court that the cabinet had not been opened in more than ten years. After the cabinet was moved to Richmond, a staff member sawed off the lock. Inside, Steele found records of asbestos pollution, refinery flares, inspection reports, and settlements between the air district and companies that had been charged with violations. She expressed concern that these documents had not been made available for public records requests. Asked if she felt the district was withholding information from the public, Steele said, “Hell, yeah.”

Another former air district employee, who asked not to be named, agreed that the district had mishandled public documents and destroyed many that should have been kept, but disagreed with Bachmann’s and Steele’s suspicions that this was being done intentionally to keep information from the public. The employee, who was familiar with the document-handling process, expressed the view that rather than “a conspiracy,” the records mishandling was due to “laziness and ineptitude.”

That person, however, also reported having the impression that senior air district officials were reluctant to clash with industrial polluters. If the district were to impose large fines for air-pollution violations, for example, “the refineries would fight tooth and nail — and they have the best lawyers.” The former employee said district officials “want to work with industry, to be on their good side, [to have] a symbiotic relationship.”

Steele believes this cozy relationship interferes with the public’s right to know about air pollution issues.

In December 2015, Bachmann made another disturbing discovery. Over the summer he had downloaded all the photographic images of documents from agency computers. Since then, he had developed a software system for digitizing them to be searchable. But at the end of the year, when he went back to the computers to double check, he found that thousands of these images had disappeared. They included records of violations of air quality standards, complaints and actions taken, asbestos records, and communications between executives and industry. Gaps in numbering showed that documents were missing.

In January 2016, Bachmann reported this to air district senior staff. His supervisor, Eric Stevenson, said later in a court deposition that Bachmann had been “ruffling feathers” of executive management: “He wanted … to be more in control of the documents system as opposed to … allowing the divisions to maintain control of that,” Stevenson said. Under further questioning he added that Bachmann wanted that control because “there was the potential that documents of records could be destroyed.”

Air district employees soon received a flyer with their paychecks reminding them that the office move was imminent and encouraging them to “clear out unwanted/unneeded items.” The flyer specified that “confidential documents” should go into shredder bins and other materials into recycling containers, with no direction about which records to retain. The flyer promised a pizza party to the division with the best-cleaned-out office.

The following month, Bachmann was summoned to a disciplinary meeting where he was told he was being suspended for a week without pay for violating the agency’s vehicle-use policy. Officials said he used an air district car in his commute, a widespread practice specifically allowed in the vehicle-use policy, Bachmann said.

His absence gave agency officials an opportunity to second-guess his work. “When a government employee is suspended without pay,” he noted, “the agency gets access to your computer.” When Bachmann returned after a week, he found that his whole software system for digitizing records had been wiped from his computer — along with all the digitized documents. Fortunately, he said, he had stored all the information on a hard drive and backed it up in the cloud.

On the same day Bachmann was suspended, Steele was told she was being let go because the project was finished. Yet after Steele and Bachmann were gone, she said, the district hired a contractor to continue the work they had been doing.

Even before he returned from his suspension, Bachmann was suspended a second time, this time with pay. However, he maintained access to a security camera at the Richmond storage facility. He showed the Express pictures he said were stills taken by that camera in May 2016. The pictures showed records chief Reed directing a crew that was dumping boxes of stored records into bins, then wheeling them out to a truck labeled “Shred-It.” This despite a 2001 agreement in San Francisco Superior Court in which the air district committed not to destroy any public documents without keeping a record of them.

Bachmann was finally fired in August 2017. At stake for him, as a career employee, was not only his salary but also his access to health care and other retirement benefits — although his retirement income is secure in the state employee pension fund. Reasons given for his firing were “misconduct,” “insubordination,” and “dishonesty.” The air district claimed he had misrepresented his military service and education on his employment application, but Bachmann said he has documents verifying these records.

As a career employee, Bachmann was entitled to due process in a “Skelly hearing,” named after a court case that established this right. According to law, the officer conducting the hearing is supposed to be impartial. But Steele pointed out that Bachmann’s hearing was conducted by Jeff McKay, one of the district officials charged in the lawsuit with destroying records.

The lawsuit is moving slowly, but scheduled to go to trial in December. So far the court has taken depositions from eleven air district staff members. Last April, Walker said, it imposed a fine on the district for “abusing the discovery process and not producing documents that they should have produced.”

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    And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close

    Old, small plants were the early retirees, but several of the biggest U.S. coal burners—and CO2 emitters-will be shuttered by year’s end

    Scientific American, by Benjamin Storrow, E&E News, 16 Aug 2019
    And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close
    The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., is scheduled to close this year. It’s one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S. power sector. Credit: David Wall Getty Images

    When the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona shuts down later this year, it will be one of the largest carbon emitters to ever close in American history.

    The giant coal plant on Arizona’s high desert emitted almost 135 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2010 and 2017, according to an E&E News review of federal figures.

    Its average annual emissions over that period are roughly equivalent to what 3.3 million passenger cars would pump into the atmosphere in a single year. Of all the coal plants to be retired in the United States in recent years, none has emitted more.

    The Navajo Generating Station isn’t alone. It’s among a new wave of super-polluters headed for the scrap heap. Bruce Mansfield, a massive coal plant in Pennsylvania, emitted nearly 123 million tons between 2010 and 2017. It, too, will be retired by year’s end (Energywire, Aug. 12).

    And in western Kentucky, the Paradise plant emitted some 102 million tons of carbon over that period. The Tennessee Valley Authority closed two of Paradise’s three units in 2017. It will close the last one next year (Greenwire, Feb. 14).

    “It’s just the economics keep moving in a direction that favors natural gas and renewables. Five years ago, it was about the older coal plants becoming uneconomic,” said Dan Bakal, senior director of electric power at Ceres, which works with businesses to transition to clean energy. “Now, it’s becoming about every coal unit, and it’s a question of how long they can survive.”

    Coal plant closures have been a feature of U.S. power markets for the better part of a decade, as stagnant demand, low natural gas prices and increasing competition from renewables have battered the coal fleet.

    In previous years, most retirements were made up of smaller and lesser-used units (Climatewire, April 27, 2017). That means the emissions reductions were less substantial.

    In 2015, the United States closed 15 gigawatts of coal capacity, or roughly 5% of the coal fleet. That still stands as a record amount of coal capacity retired in one year.

    Yet the emissions reductions were modest by today’s standards. The units retired in 2015 emitted a combined 261 million tons in the six years prior to their retirement, according to an E&E News review of EPA emissions data. On average, they annually emitted about 43 million tons over that period.

    Contrast that to 2018, when almost 14 GW of coal was retired. Those units emitted 511 million tons of carbon between 2010 and 2015. Their combined average annual emissions rate was 83 million tons.

    The trend figures to be even more dramatic this year.

    SMALL PLANTS ARE GONE

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects almost 8 GW of coal to retire in 2019, or a little more than half the capacity retired in 2015. Yet the units retired this year emitted more than their 2015 counterparts. Between 2010 and 2015, their combined emissions were 328 million tons, giving them an annual emissions average of 55 million tons.

    Other factors are also at play in the retirement of coal’s behemoths. In some cases, federal air quality regulations or an exodus of customers may have contributed to the closure, said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm.

    The Navajo Generating Station is a case in point. The plant had already planned to shut down a unit to comply with federal smog regulations. Two utilities with a stake in the facility had either divested from the plant or plan to do so. And the plant’s largest customer announced it could buy power on the wholesale market for less.

    “You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” Larsen said. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

    There are several caveats to consider. Units scheduled for retirement generally produce less in the years running up to their closure, meaning the plants that closed in 2015 once emitted more than they did near the end of their lives.

    There’s also this: The vast majority of super-polluters have no closure date in sight. That’s because massive coal plants generally benefit from large economies of scale. Because they crank out power around the clock, their cost of generating electricity is relatively cheap.

    “The coal plants remaining have generally installed all the environmental controls,” Larsen said. “There are no additional regulatory threats, or they are cost-effective in a world where gas is $2.50 per MMBtu.”

    Another caveat: Coal plant closures don’t guarantee power-sector emissions reductions on their own. In 2018, power-sector emissions increased for the first time in many years because electricity demand rose, prompting natural gas generation to spike (Climatewire, Jan. 14).

    But if there is a notable trend with the current round of plant closures, it is this: The large coal plants closing today are in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

    “You’re not seeing climate policy close these plants,” said Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation, a nonprofit that advocates for a transition to clean energy. “Coal plants are becoming more expensive to operate over time.”

    Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.
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      Wind power prices now lower than the cost of natural gas

      In the US, it’s cheaper to build and operate wind farms than buy fossil fuels.

      Image of wind turbines on a ridge

      This week, the US Department of Energy released a report that looks back on the state of wind power in the US by running the numbers on 2018. The analysis shows that wind hardware prices are dropping, even as new turbine designs are increasing the typical power generated by each turbine. As a result, recent wind farms have gotten so cheap that you can build and operate them for less than the expected cost of buying fuel for an equivalent natural gas plant.

      Wind is even cheaper at the moment because of a tax credit given to renewable energy generation. But that credit is in the process of fading out, leading to long term uncertainty in a power market where demand is generally stable or dropping.

      A lot of GigaWatts

      2018 saw about 7.6 GigaWatts of new wind capacity added to the grid, accounting for just over 20 percent of the US’ capacity additions. This puts it in third place behind natural gas and solar power. That’s less impressive than it might sound, however, given that things like coal and nuclear are essentially at a standstill. Because the best winds aren’t evenly distributed in the US, there are areas, like parts of the Great Plains, where wind installations were more than half of the new power capacity installed.

      Overall, that brings the US’ installed capacity up to nearly 100GW. That leaves only China ahead of the US, although the gap is substantial with China having more than double the US’ installed capacity. It still leaves wind supplying only 6.5 percent of the US’ total electricity in 2018, though, which places it behind a dozen other countries. Four of them—Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal—get over 20 percent of their total electric needs supplied by wind, with Denmark at over 40 percent.

      That figure is notable, as having over 30 percent of your power supplied by an intermittent source is a challenge for many existing grids. But there are a number of states that have now cleared the 30 percent threshold: Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma, with the two Dakotas not far behind. The Southwest Power Pool, which serves two of those states plus wind giant Texas, is currently getting a quarter of its electricity from wind. (Texas leads the US with 25GW of installed wind capacity.)

      Despite having a lot of wind installed, the US uses far more power from other sources.
      Enlarge / Despite having a lot of wind installed, the US uses far more power from other sources.  US DOE

       

      So while wind remains a small factor in the total electricity market in the US, there are parts of the country where it’s a major factor in the generating mix. And, given the prices, those parts are likely to expand.

      Plummeting prices

      In the US, the prices for wind power had risen up until 2009, when power purchase agreements for wind-generated electricity peaked at about $70 per MegaWatt-hour. Since then, there’s been a very steady decline, and 2018 saw the national average fall below $20/MW-hr for the first time. Again, there’s regional variation with the Great Plains seeing the lowest prices, in some cases reaching the mid-teens.

      That puts wind in an incredibly competitive position. The report uses an estimate of future natural gas prices that show an extremely gradual rise of about $10/MW-hr out to 2050. But natural gas—on its own, without considering the cost of a plant to burn it for electricity—is already over $20/MW-hr. That means wind sited in the center of the US is already cheaper than fueling a natural gas plant, and wind sited elsewhere is roughly equal.

      Those black bars are the price of gas. Blue circles are wind, while yellow are solar.
      Enlarge / Those black bars are the price of gas. Blue circles are wind, while yellow are solar.  US DOE

       

      The report notes that photovoltaics have reached prices that are roughly equivalent to wind, but those got there from a starting point of about $150/MW-hr in 2009. Thus, unless natural gas prices reverse the expected trend and get cheaper, wind and solar will remain the cheapest sources of new electricity in the US.

      The levelized cost of electricity, which eliminates the impact of incentives and subsidies on the final prices, places wind below $40/MW-hr in 2018. The cheapest form of natural gas generation was roughly $10 more per MegaWatt-hour. Note that, as recently as 2015, the US’ Energy Information Agency was predicting that wind’s levelized cost in 2020 would be $74/MW-hr.

      Built on better tech

      Why has wind gotten much cheaper than expected? Part of it is in improved technology. The report notes that in 2008, there were no turbines installed in the US with rotors above 100 meters in diameter. In 2018, 99 percent of them were over 100m, and the average size was 116m. In general, the turbine’s generator grew in parallel. The average capacity for 2018 installs was 2.4MW, which is up five percent from the year previous.

      The area swept by the blades goes up with the square of their length. Thus, even though blade length and rated generating capacity are going up in parallel, the actual potential energy input from the blades is growing much faster. This has the effect of lowering what’s called the specific power of the wind turbine. These lower specific power turbines work better in areas where the wind isn’t as strong or consistent. On the truly windy days, they’ll saturate the ability of the generator to extract power, while on a more typical day when the winds are lighter or erratic, they’ll get more out of them.

      So even though more turbines are being built at sites without the best wind resources, we’re generating more power per turbine. The capacity factor—the amount of power generated relative to the size of the generator—for projects built in the previous four years has now hit 42 percent, a figure that would once have required offshore wind. That’s dragged the capacity factor of the entire US wind industry up to over 35 percent for the first time last year.

      Each year, the capacity factor of newly installed projects is typically higher than that of the years prior.
      Enlarge / Each year, the capacity factor of newly installed projects is typically higher than that of the years prior.  US DOE

       

      The economics of these low-wind designs are so good that 23 existing sites were “repowered,” with new, larger rotors replacing older hardware on existing towers. One thing that may be encouraging this is that older plants (those a decade old or more) seem to see a small dip in capacity factor over time. But the reason for this isn’t clear at this point, so it’s something that will have to be tracked in the future.

      Better grid management also helped the economics of wind. At times, strong winds can cause wind farms to produce an excess of power relative to demand, causing a farm’s output to be reduced. This process, called curtailment, remained a small factor, with only two percent of the potential generation lost this way. Put differently, if the curtailed electricity had been used, it would have only raised the average capacity factor by 0.7 percentage points.

      Overall, given these economics, it’s clear that the economic case for wind energy will remain solid as the tax credits for the construction of renewable energy fade out over the next few years. But the vanishing credits are causing lots of developers to start projects sooner rather than later, so we may see a bubble in construction for the next couple of years, followed by a dramatic drop off.

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        Koch Industries – from Fred Koch’s John Birch Society to Charles’ & David’s climate change denial as far back as1991

        Christopher Leonard’s New Book Puts an Ever-Expanding ‘Kochland’ on the Map

        Repost from DeSmog, by Sharon Kelly, August 16, 2019

        Kochland book cover over Pine Bend refineryChristopher Leonard’s new book, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, begins, appropriately enough, with an FBI agent, who is investigating criminal activity by the company, standing in a field with a pair of binoculars, trying to catch a glimpse of the daily operations of a company that prizes secrecy.

        Koch Industries was under investigation for theft of oil from the Osage and other Indigenous nations. Walking into the company’s office building involved passing through security checkpoints, Leonard explains, so numerous that one investigator later told Leonard that it “reminded him of traveling to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”

        Through exhaustive reporting and extraordinary interviews with past and current company executives, including some turned whistleblower, Kochland offers readers a view far larger than can be seen through binocular lenses, walking readers past those layers of security checkpoints and into the inner workings of an institution that has for decades tirelessly built itself into practically all American lives, while largely evading accountability or transparency.

        While Charles and David Koch’s political operations have been the subject of powerful investigative reporting by the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, author of the landmark book Dark Money, and numerous others, Leonard probes into the business that not only funds the Koch political machine, but also represents the clearest embodiment of the Kochs’ market fundamentalist political philosophy in action.

        The Invisible Elephant in the Room

        In 1961, when Charles Koch joined his father Fred — a founder of the John Birch Society who had, as Mayer reported, previously helped Hitler and Stalin build out their oil refineries, Koch Industries, was generating $3.5 million in profit a year, Leonard writes.

        By the end of the Obama administration, company had grown enough to leave Charles and David Koch with personal fortunes of $81 billion (contrasted against Bill Gates’ $81 billion). Koch Industries says its workforce now numbers 130,000 people worldwide, roughly half of those in the U.S., and that it operates today in 60 countries.

        As much as it is mammoth — its “annual revenues are larger than that of Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and U.S. Steel combined,” Leonard told NPR — if Koch Industries is the elephant in the room, it has sought to master the art of being a virtually invisible one.

        That inconspicuousness is built into its business model. The company invests little in consumer brands and largely acts as industrialization’s middleman, churning raw fossil fuels into not only gasoline at its Pine Bend refinery in Minnesota, but also into the ingredients that become our buildings, our clothing, and other items that we may not know about because even those who closely track the Kochs’ politics have been unable to trace (are they involved with fracking, for example? A definitive answer is surprisingly hard to come by, says Koch Docs director Lisa Graves).

        Koch Industries is also omnipresent in the agricultural machine that, in Leonard’s words, has become “one immense machine that laundered energy from fossil fuels into food calorie energy that humans could eat,” thanks to natural gas–based fertilizers. Not only does it manufacture those fertilizers, it produces livestock feed, cattle, and even the disposable plate you might eat your meal from.

        Leonard describes how Charles Koch sought to grow and harness the entrepreneurial spirit of his management staff by treating them like small business owners, attuned not to performance metrics or budgets but directly to the company’s profits and losses — with the key difference being that the privately held Koch Industries, not workers or management, are reaping the profits.

        What resulted was a kind of perpetual motion machine,” Leonard writes of one era in the company’s history, “a company that grew and then cited that growth as justification to grow faster.”

        The 704-page book offers an inside-the-fenceline view of how that company has operated and grown over the years, including a blow-by-blow account of how Koch Industries sought to break the back of a refinery workers’ union in the 1970s. Leonard presents readers with a riveting narrative of “the war for Pine Bend,” including helicopter airlifts and the apparent attempted sabotage of the refinery via a runaway diesel train engine.

        Shrouded in Secret, Beyond Consumer Reproach

        In Kochland, it seems, the only form of accountability that executives recognize as important comes from business losses.

        As a private firm, Koch Industries faces none of the reporting requirements that publicly traded companies must meet — Leonard recounts how during a 1989 deposition, Charles Koch was forced to reveal sales and profit figures, which Leonard writes were “considered top secret” by the company, but for a publicly traded firm, a widely available set of numbers.

        Koch Industries

        Koch Industries eludes consumer boycotts by selling products that are inescapably entwined in the infrastructure of daily American life. As much as any single organization, Koch Industries has made any problems it is responsible for — intentionally, in Leonard’s telling — structural, problems that cannot be addressed through individual consumer action.

        When it comes to environmental accountability, Leonard diagnoses structural issues inside the company in the 1990s that facilitated law breaking. In a fascinating chapter, Leonard offers readers an account of Koch Industries deliberately and repeatedly spewing contaminated wastewater into wetlands in Minnesota, a major violation of environmental law to which the company pled guilty in 1999.

        The company learned that violating regulations could put a dent in its profit margins, and responded accordingly,” Jennifer Szalai wrote in a New York Times review of Kochland. “It now imprints upon employees the need for ‘10,000 percent compliance’: obeying 100 percent of the laws 100 percent of the time.”

        That narrative isn’t a perfect fit for the facts — just a year later, Koch pled guilty to falsifying documents and settled with the Justice Department for $20 million over benzene pollution in Corpus Christi, Texas, and an attempted cover-up, according to Greenpeace.

        And 10 years later, a Koch subsidiary reached a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice over environmental law-breaking that spanned seven states. Those violations resulted in a $1.7 million fine and $500 million in repair obligations, Greenpeace adds as it details both accidental spills or leaks and toxic pollution (at times with the permission of state regulators) that have sickened those living around the plants.

        If anything, what Koch Industries seemed to learn from costly environmental fines and settlements is that it can be cheaper to change the law today than it is to pay the fine tomorrow. Leonard details how, for example, the Kochs began, via a nonprofit group, to sponsor free educational events for judges, hosted in luxurious locales, which organizers said by 2016 had attracted more than 4,000 state and federal judges from every part of the country.

        Power in Politics

        The Kochs’ power as political actors is, of course, notoriously non-transparent — which can conceal not only the mechanisms they use for leverage, but also the degree of self-interest that may motivate their work.

        David Koch
        David Koch speaking at the 2015 Defending the American Dream Summit at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio.
         Credit: Gage SkidmoreCC BYSA 2.0

        While the Kochs have labored strenuously to market themselves as sincere ideological Libertarians, defending personal freedom (for property owners, at least) against government encroachment, their agenda is interwoven with threads of visible self-interest.

        From their earliest forays into politics — like David Koch’s failed 1980 Libertarian party vice-presidential bid as part of a campaign that championed abolishing the Department of Energy — the political platforms they support consistently seem to include planks that would benefit the Kochs’ business. (And in cases where their business interests and ideologies might conflict, it may be worth bearing in mind that the Kochs who Leonard describes are adept at strategizing with a long-range view, accepting short-term losses at times in the pursuit of longer-term gains.)

        That long-range strategy extends to the Koch network’s stance on climate change — and here, Mayer credits Leonard’s book with breaking new ground, demonstrating that when it comes to opposing action on climate change, “their role went as far back as 1991.”

        If there is any lingering uncertainty that the Koch brothers are the primary sponsors of climate-change doubt in the United States, it ought to be put to rest by the publication of “Kochland,” Mayer wrote in the New Yorker. “Magnifying the Kochs’ power was their network of allied donors, anonymously funded shell groups, think tanks, academic centers, and nonprofit advocacy groups, which Koch insiders referred to as their ‘echo chamber.’”

        Koch Docs, an online archive launched August 9, has collected many of the documents used by Leonard and others to understand how Charles Koch and his company operate.

        ‘Block and Tackle’ Under Trump

        When it comes to the Trump administration, the focus of the book’s final chapters, Leonard compares the Koch strategy to a “block and tackle” system — in the sense that by working to block certain policies and offer the administration assistance tackling others, it’s possible to create a path of least interference for the administration that runs right where Koch desires.

        I’m more excited about what we’re doing and about the opportunities than I’ve ever been,” Leonard quotes Charles Koch as saying during a January 2018 meeting of Koch network donors in Palm Springs. “We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the previous fifty.”

        While Kochland goes a long way towards letting readers peer inside the windows of Koch Towers, much remains unknown about the organization, despite the efforts of Leonard and many others. But Kochland chips away at a significant portion of the opaque layer that’s shielded the Kochs from scrutiny.

        Leonard’s work leaves open a question for readers — once you’ve had a glimpse inside the Kochs’ private capitalist empire, is it a place you want to live?

        Because when it comes to both politics and consumerism, Leonard’s book suggests that an ever-expanding Kochland just might become inescapable.

        Main image: Kochland book cover over original image of the Pine Bend oil refinery, one of many Koch businesses profiled in Kochland.  Credit: Tony WebsterCCBYSA 2.0

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