The Kochs, Big Oil Are Taking Their War With The EPA To The Ballot Box

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN RABY

By Josh Israel and Samantha Page

On Tuesday, Missouri Republicans nominated Josh Hawley to be the state’s next attorney general. A lawyer best known for his work opposing mandatory contraception coverage in the Hobby Lobby case and his socially conservative views, Hawley has promised to use the office as the “tip of the spear in fighting federal overreach” — overreach, he argues, like the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

If elected, Hawley would no doubt follow the lead of several other Republican state attorneys general and use his office to take the fight against federal regulations, including those designed to protect the environment and combat climate change, to the courts. And one deep-pocketed political group has already pledged to “vigorously support” Hawley’s candidacy.

With more than $4 million already spent or committed in support of GOP candidates this year, the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) is poised to play a huge role in November’s state attorney general elections. And it is doing so with a huge assist from billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and other fossil fuel interests.

RAGA is a Washington, D.C.-based political organization dedicated to electing and re-electing Republicans across the nation to be state attorneys general — and to supporting their efforts to fight “federal encroachment” and to promote “free markets.”

RAGA has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this election cycle in support of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) and, through its Mountaineers Are Always Free state PAC, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), though the group claims both races are “safe for the incumbent party.”

Thus far in the 2015–2016 cycle, RAGA has disclosed about $19 million in contributions received.

So where did RAGA get its money? More than $2.4 million — about 13 percent — came from Koch Industries, Murray Energy, the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, and other fossil fuel interests. Another nearly $1.4 million came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which receives a significant amount of its funds from fossil fuel companies and Koch-backed nonprofits.

Attorney general elections don’t garner big headlines. Most Americans likely can’t even name their state attorney general. But these people play a major role in enforcing — or fighting — environmental laws.

At the moment, several state attorneys general are fighting the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a rule that seeks to limit emissions from the electricity sector. It is expected to be one of the country’s strongest tools to help meet goals under the Paris Agreement and avoid the catastrophic implications of a 2°C rise in global temperatures. There are also state-led lawsuits again the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which is expected to protect drinking water for one out of every three Americans, and against a rule to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Missouri, where Hawley is running, is party to both the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS challenges. It is also one of four states RAGA has identified its the most competitive races in 2016. Indiana, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are the others — all three of those races also lack an incumbent.

“While our President jets around the world pushing his job-killing ‘climate agenda’ his policies are hurting Missouri farmers and holding back our businesses,” Hawley says on his campaign website. “As Missouri’s next Attorney General, I will protect Missouri agriculture from Obama’s climate change crusade.”

Opponents to the WOTUS rule have argued that it is overly burdensome for farmers.

In Indiana, too, the focus is on the WOTUS rule. “I have watched President Obama continuously attempt to infringe upon our Second Amendment rights while his ever expanding federal government asserts more and more authority over our property — even down to a puddle of water!” writes Republican candidate Curtis Hill.

In Pennsylvania, which has so far stayed out of the Clean Power Plan fracas (it is one of only five states that hasn’t sided either with or against the EPA), fracking is the big issue at stake. Republican candidate John Rafferty has said his Democratic opponent “hopes to help Hillary Clinton cripple the energy industry and leave thousands jobless.”

As a state senator, Rafferty was relatively moderate on fracking. At one point, he angered constituents by voting to allow fracking on public land. He said the issue was tied up in a fiscal bill that he had to support. Rafferty would succeed beleaguered Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat who is not running for reelection.

North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general is also departing, and RAGA has already reserved a $3.8 million ad blitz in support of Republican attorney general nominee, State Sen. Eldon Sharpe “Buck” Newton III. (RAGA has not yet disclosed any spending in the other three races.)

Newton is running on a decidedly pro-fossil fuel platform. He takes credit for helping to “expand offshore and natural gas drilling to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil,” although North Carolina has neither offshore drilling nor natural gas fracking, due to a court challenge.

Still, last year Newton introduced a bill that would jail anyone who disclosed fracking chemicals. Fracking companies claim that these chemical cocktails are proprietary information, but the lack of information makes it difficult for environmentalists and regulators to monitor contamination.

Newton also supported the state’s ban on bans — a law that prohibits localities and municipalities from enacting fracking bans.

That, apparently, does not constitute government overreach, which Newton does not like.

“For too long, politicians in Washington have expanded the federal government’s reach into our lives and no one has fought this egregious power grab,” Newton’s campaign site says. “Unlike our current Attorney General who has refused to stand up to President Obama for the state, Buck has fought against implementing Obamacare and overregulation from the EPA.”

In addition to fighting federal regulation, attorneys general can also get involved in disputes between business and the federal government. Currently, six states — and the aforementioned U.S. Chamber of Commerce — are intervening on behalf of TransCanada in a the oil pipline company’s suit challenging the U.S. rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline permit. Texas and Alabama are even intervening on behalf of Exxon against an attorney general-led investigation into whether the oil and gas giant defrauded shareholders by not disclosing climate risk.

Beyond working to elect attorneys general who oppose climate action, RAGA has attacked North Carolina Democratic attorney general nominee Josh Stein for taking money from a “far-left environmentalist billionaire,” praised West Virginia’s Morrisey for “leading the charge against Obama’s environmental ‘power grab,’” and attacked the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as “unconstitutional overreach.”

Being an attorney general is a “critical role” as the chief legal officer for state, Duke law professor Ryke Longest told ThinkProgress.

In North Carolina, a case brought by the attorney general against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), ultimately ended in a 2011 settlement that forced the utility reduce pollution from its coal-fired power plants and pay $350 million toward environmental mitigation.

It is the attorney general in New York, for instance, who launched the Exxon Knew investigation. California’s attorney general led a charge against Volkswagen, after university scientists showed the company had built its cars to mislead emissions tests. Earlier this year, a coalition of 17 attorneys general vowed to pursue climate change litigation.

But it doesn’t always work out like that, Longest noted.

“Some government agencies have tried to shield polluters from the citizens suits by taking weak enforcement actions,” he said. And attorneys general serve as the lawyers for state agencies — so they can help strategize and pursue settlements.

So it’s important that voters interests and the interests of their attorneys general align.

Take opposition to the EPA. Of the states RAGA is targeting this season, only Pennsylvania has not joined the lawsuit challenging the Clean Power Plan. But in most places that are opposing it — including Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina, where the Republican candidates supported by RAGA would undoubtedly continue the litigation — the public actually wants limits on power plant pollution.

November will be their opportunity to show it.