The White House yesterday escalated an ongoing feud with billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch over energy subsidies and the oil and gas industry’s role in influencing politicians.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that an exchange between President Obama and the Koch brothers this week highlights Obama’s efforts to block the industry from influencing policymaking.
"It’s why he ran for this office — is that for too long we saw the oil and gas industry exert significant pressure on politicians in Washington, D.C.," Earnest said from the West Wing. "And that did have an impact on the ability of the federal government to make smart policy decisions in terms of offering preferences to oil and gas companies and not making the kinds of investments that we know we should be making in renewable and clean energy. And that’s — I guess to borrow a phrase — that’s change you believe in."
Obama jumped into a long-running spat between Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Koch brothers on Monday during a keynote address at Reid’s eighth annual Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas.
During the speech, Obama touted his aggressive efforts to tackle climate change and cited the growth in renewables during his administration, which he said "has some fossil fuel interests pretty nervous." He also urged the room packed with renewable supporters to hold the line against clean energy critics, including the Koch brothers (Greenwire, Aug. 25).
"When you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding — that’s a problem. That’s not the American way," Obama said. "That’s not progress. That’s not innovation. That’s rent seeking and trying to protect old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future."
Earnest said the president was touching on a Koch lobbying effort to secure incentives for oil and gas activities.
"The fact is that Koch Industries has spent at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, lobbying Congress — these are publicly available disclosures — in support of those kinds of policies, to say nothing of the millions of dollars that they have spent punishing those candidates that didn’t side with them," Earnest said.
The comments fueled outrage on the other side.
Philip Ellender, president of government and public affairs for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, denounced as "hypocritical" Earnest’s attempts to tout the merits of the free market system directly after the White House promoted a new round of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees for renewables — or "the administration’s politically friendly special interests."
Ellender also took issue with statements from the White House about Koch lobbying efforts.
"We have not lobbied for government subsidies or mandates. Instead, we have consistently lobbied against all subsidies, including those on fossil fuels, that directly benefit Koch," he said. "The fact is — and the White House should know this — we have fought against government boondoggles for decades because corporate welfare wastes resources, stifles innovation and has pushed our country to the brink of bankruptcy."
Ellender acknowledged that Koch has accepted subsidies, but claimed it was reluctantly.
"We have been forced to participate in subsidies — such as import tariffs, export restrictions, and anti-competitive regulations and mandates — that are enshrined in law and not optional," Ellender said. "And, like virtually everyone, we take advantage of lawful tax breaks to remain competitive. But to reiterate, we consistently fight to eliminate these as well as all subsidies and mandates, including those that benefit us."
GOP political strategist Mike McKenna questioned Earnest’s comments, noting that oil and gas production has surged under the Obama administration in states like North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Texas.
"If he really ran for office to minimize the influence of the oil and gas industry, he failed," McKenna said. "The American oil and gas industry is producing more than they ever have … despite [Obama], really."
Charles Koch during an interview with Politico earlier this week said Obama’s comments in Nevada were "beneath the president, the dignity of the president."
Koch, who serves as CEO of Koch Industries, said he opposes subsidies for all types of energy, including fossil fuels, and went on to attribute Obama’s harsh remarks to the presence of Reid, saying "the only thing I can think of is he was there with Harry Reid, and it was kind of a farewell gesture to help Harry Reid."
When asked about those remarks, Earnest told reporters he wasn’t sure whether to describe them as "remarkably rich or utterly predictable."
Koch is "certainly allowed to express his opinion about what he believes the dignity of the office is," Earnest said. "But again, I think in this case the facts speak for themselves."