The following article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Abolish Oil Now! which compares the movement to fight climate change today with the most successful citizens’ movement in history, the campaign to abolish slavery before the Civil War.
Just as big cotton growers in the mid-nineteenth century American South firmly tied their fate to the Confederacy, so once he was elected, big oil, gas, and coal companies went all in for Trump.
Let’s hope that Trump will turn out to have been the last fossil-fuel president. Meantime, Americans should never forget the hell that oil companies were willing to put the country through by enabling Trump. And just so that they could protect their profits.
Though Big Oil was slow to get on the Trump train, once he was elected, oil companies went all in for Trump. Their support paid off handsomely, with four years of environmental rollbacks and other giveaways for fossil fuels. One hand washed the other, and the industry showed its gratitude with generous donations to Republicans including close allies of Trump who spread lies about the election of Joe Biden. It all ended with Trump provoking the insurrection of January 6, 2021, the first attack on the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812.
Despite enabling the Trump movement for years, fossil fuel companies tried to distance themselves from this chilling attack on the republic. But some of the most visible advocates for fossil fuels and against action on climate change were not afraid to come right out in the open and cheer on the insurrectionists.
Science Deniers Apply their Skills to Justifying MAGA Insurrectionists
“Climate deniers backed violence and spread pro-insurrection messages before, during, and after January 6,” according to DeSmog.
The evening after the insurrection, former coal mining executive Don Blankenship, who spent a year in jail for violating mine-safety standards while CEO of Massey Energy, tweeted his support for the insurrectionists. “Members of the media and the government are all saying what we saw today doesn’t work—but that is only because they don’t want it to work. What we saw today is what freed Americans from King George and England.”
Tom Tanton, a consultant for the American Petroleum Institute and advisor to the Heartland Institute, one of the front groups discreetly paid by oil companies to deny climate science, falsely claimed on Facebook that the rioters were not Trump supporters, but infiltrators from antifa.
Steve Milloy, who joined the Heartland board of directors in 2020, and who tweets under the handle @JunkScience, suggested in a media interview that the riot was a set-up by the “deep state,” and that the police and military “just let this happen so that they could set President Trump up for this impeachment.”
Heartland Institute PR flacks are paid for their big mouths. So, they’re not afraid to mix it up online as attack dogs for fossil fuels and, apparently, also for Trump. But corporate CEOs usually like to keep a lower profile when it comes to partisan politics and Big Oil CEOs were more circumspect about the Capitol insurrection. Some even denounced the violence. Yet nice words only mean something when accompanied by actions.
Big Oil has sent money to Heartland and other propaganda outlets for decades. Oil companies also supported science-denying politicians who allied themselves with Trump’s effort to overturn Joe Biden’s victory and then egged on the Capitol insurrectionists.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has dismissed climate science as a “religion,” not a body of fact. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has denied that greenhouse pollution from burning fossil fuels has any effect on global temperature rise because God controls the climate. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., says he’s “not sure that there is even climate change.” All three are big beneficiaries of donations from fossil fuel companies. And the list goes on and on.
Charles Koch Wants Forgiveness
When it comes to the man who provided so much funding to these senators and other Republican legislators who denied climate science and supported Trump, oilman and top conservative political donor Charles Koch for one seems to be hoping that the public will forgive, if not quite forget.
Just after Trump was defeated by Biden in November 2020, Koch went on a tour to promote his new book and apologized for his part in promoting partisanship. “Boy, did we screw up!” Koch writes in his tome, Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. “What a mess!” This after decades of paying front groups to oppose solutions not only to the climate crisis but to many other problems faced by ordinary Americans.
As one journalist suggested, Koch deserved “the award for most destructive influence on modern American political life…He and his late brother, David, are the hard-right, libertarian gazillionaires behind almost every cruel, malign, extreme, divisive campaign that the GOP has run on in recent decades. Anti-regulation. Check. Anti-union. Check. Anti-healthcare. Check. Anti-environment. Check.”
Marcella Mulholland of Data for Progress suggests that Koch donations to Republicans who wound up challenging the electoral college certification of Joe Biden’s election helped fuel the Capitol insurrection:
Koch Industries contributed $708,500 to Electoral College objectors through its PAC during the 2020 campaign cycle. Kansas’ three Republican representatives all voted to overturn the will of the American people by voting against certifying the 2020 presidential results, as did Sen. Roger Marshall. The three objectors in the House all received $10,000 donations from Koch’s PAC.
By putting campaign cash into the coffers of the Sedition Caucus, Koch Industries has rewarded and fueled their attacks on Democracy. What happened on Jan. 6 was the violent culmination of years of Republicans’ undermining elections and spurring on dangerous, bigoted and violent rhetoric.
After the attack on the Capitol, the Koch network promised to reevaluate its political donations. “Lawmakers’ actions leading up to and during last week’s insurrection will weigh heavy in our evaluation of future support. And we will continue to look for ways to support those policymakers who reject the politics of division and work together to move our country forward,” said Emily Seidel, CEO of Americans for Prosperity and senior adviser to AFP Action, the group’s super PAC, in a statement to POLITICO.
Only the future will tell if Koch donations stop flowing to supporters of Trump’s attempted self-coup.
Other Big Oil Companies Complicit
Other oil powers tried to distance themselves from Trump once he had become politically toxic after the January 6 insurrection. But their nice words in the present were inadequate to compensate for their dark deeds in the past. After law enforcement and National Guard troops had cleared the pro-Trump mob from the U.S. Capitol building, Chevron tweeted a message calling for a peaceful transition to the new Biden administration.
“The violence in Washington, D.C. tarnishes a two-century tradition of respect for the rule of law. We look forward to engaging with President-Elect Biden and his administration to move the nation forward.” Activists quickly pointed out that this sentiment rang offensively hollow.
Never mind that during his campaign, Biden promised that if he was elected, he would support climate-related litigation against Chevron and other oil companies filed by 20 U.S. states and localities. Just as Lincoln was not the president favored by the Slave Power in 1860, so Biden was not the president that Big Oil wanted in 2020.
Chevron and the rest of Big Oil gave as much support to Trump and asked for as many handouts from Trump’s administration as the Koch network did. In 2019-2020 alone, Chevron made nearly a million dollars in donations to political action committees of federal candidates, with 85 percent going to Republicans including Trump along with Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who led the effort in Congress to overturn Biden’s election. Over the four years of Trump’s administration, Chevron made more than $1.8 million in donations to federal candidate PACs, overwhelmingly to Republicans.
“It’s absurd for Chevron to pretend that it’s not complicit in upending the peaceful transfer of power. Fossil fuel money has poisoned democracy by stalling climate legislation and making climate denial the official position of the Republican party. But it has also entrenched demagogues like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and the corrosive effect of Chevron’s investment in them was on full display [on January 6],” said Brian Kahn of Earther.
In the end, Big Oil got a big payback in exchange for supporting Donald Trump. “The Trump administration spent its lifecycle swindling the public for Big Oil: defending the industry in climate lawsuits, passing out drilling permits like candy, knocking down health and safety regulations during a pandemic, and more,” according to ExxonKnews. “It’s poetic that the closing act of the Trump Department of Justice, on his last day in office, would be to fight for polluters over people in the nation’s highest court,” arguing a case before the Supreme Court against a local government trying to hold Shell and other oil companies responsible for pollution.