The Covert Attack on John McCain’s Climate Leadership by ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers


By Kert Davies, originally published on 

InsideClimate News  Marianne Lavelle published a long piece this weekend, chronicling Senator John McCain’s rise and fall as a climate leader.  The story highlights a campaign I worked on in 2000, where we asked all the presidential candidates the simple and still pertinent question, “What’s Your Plan?” on global warming. McCain was one of the only candidates that took it on. He went back to Washington in the middle of 2000, having been defeated by George W. Bush in the primaries, and immediately started holding hearings on climate change science.

As always, there is more to the story.  When McCain emerged as “Captain Climate” in the early 2000s, and introduced the first serious bipartisan legislation to cut emissions, he became the target of a multifaceted attack by anti-regulatory free market organizations.  It turns out, many of these organizations and front groups were quietly being funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers.

This pressure may partly explain why McCain later abandoned climate change when he ran for President in 2008 and attacked his colleagues’ efforts during the 2009 push for climate legislation.  By that point McCain had succumbed to the now standard Republican talking points on climate.  Oh, and lest we forget, he also picked Sarah Palin as a running mate and starting down the “Drill, Baby, Drill” path (the opposite of sane climate policy) and the rest is history.  

No one has really explained how this turn away from climate leadership really happened. Most commentators attribute it to political choices McCain himself made, without really analyzing the outside pressure that closed in on McCain from 2000 to 2008.  

InsideClimate News notes briefly that there was a coordinated effort to oppose McCain’s efforts run by corporate-funded entities.  Climate Investigations Center went back and looked at our records for documentation of the campaign to the kill the McCain-Lieberman climate legislation as it gained momentum. First introduced in 2001 by the two Senators, The Climate Stewardship Act (S.139) was the first national, bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas pollution. This bill eventually became the ground-zero target for climate deniers and corporate interests.

Unfortunately, a month after the first McCain-Lieberman bill was introduced, the attacks on September 11th changed everything. McCain and Lieberman, a neo-con Democrat at the time, were among the first to lead the charge to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, well ahead of the Bush Administration according to many accounts from that time.

By 2003, McCain and Lieberman got back to thinking about climate change together and leveraged the first full Senate vote on their bill by forcing Majority Leader Bill Frist’s hand on an energy bill he was trying to pass.

The McCain-Lieberman bill garnered surprising support but lost 43-55, well short of the 60 votes needed to avoid an override under Senate rule.  Corporations saw this as a close call and began a concerted effort to kill the momentum in 2004 (see below). In 2005, the bill was renamed The Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, and in McCain style, stubbornly brought up for another vote where it lost by a bigger margin, 38 Yea to 60 Nay votes.

I know for a fact that they got blindsided on this.  They thought they had paved the way for success. In a meeting with a McCain staffer after the second vote, I showed them an ExxonSecrets map (similar to the one below) of the organizations and individuals that worked to kill the bill.  The staffer knew there were various organizations and companies lobbying against the bill, but had no idea the level of coordination, nor the ExxonMobil funding channels.

Was the Exxon Denial Machine built to fight Sen. McCain?

It has always been interesting that our database of ExxonMobil climate denial funding shows a dramatic increase in spending after 2000, which coincides with McCain emerging as a climate champion.

The graph above shows the yearly totals of ExxonMobil’s grants to climate denying non-profit organizations and breaks out the total grants specifically earmarked for climate change between the years of 1997-2006.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that corporate polluters thought they were off the hook with the Bush-Cheney victory over Gore-Lieberman.  Yet ExxonMobil’s funding of climate denial organizations ballooned to its highest levels between 2000 and 2005 as the McCain-Lieberman legislation gained momentum. Between 2003-2005, Exxon wrote grants totaling more than $3.3 million dollars each year to climate-denying organizations.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the leader of the Cooler Heads Coalition (CHC) and recipient of over $2 million dollars total from ExxonMobil between 1997-2005, aggressively fought Sen. McCain’s climate leadership in the early 2000s. A leaked 2003 email from Myron Ebell, Director of Global Warming Policy at CEI, lays out a target list for lobbying against the “McLieberman” bill. FOIAed documents show communications in 2003 between Myron Ebell and the Bush White House Council on Environmental Quality, where Ebell details the campaign against McCain.  CEI also put out press releases against the legislation, held events to debate it, and used the CHC network of climate deniers to wage their campaign.

The Exxon-funded groups were also being funded by the Koch brothers and their foundations.  In January 2003, CEI co-authored a letter with the Koch-funded Citizen’s for Sound Economy to the Bush Whitehouse decrying the McCain-Lieberman legislation.  ExxonMobil gave CEI $465,000 that year according to Exxon documents, the largest Exxon haul by CEI in any year.  An unredacted CEI IRS 990 for 2003 lists a $100,000 donation from David Koch himself and only $180,000 from ExxonMobil (probably an accounting anomaly).

United 4 Jobs, DCI Group and Exxon cash

Following the 2003 vote on McCain Lieberman bill, the corporate forces got their act together.  In 2004, a front group coalition was set up called, complete with an American Flag and a hard hat.  Here’s some of what we know:

The United for Jobs website in 2004 said it was “a project of” the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), which received $50,000 from ExxonMobil in 2004, and the National Association of Neighborhoods, which also received $50,000 from ExxonMobil Foundation in 2004 (including $25,000 earmarked for “Climate Change Issues.”) along with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council).

  • The United4Jobs project was maintained by DCI Group, a public relations company based in Washington, DC.  DCI Group is a long time ExxonMobil contractor and has a history of setting up front groups for corporate clients, including the fossil fuel industry, even today.  (Bloomberg News’ Zach Mider and Ben Elgin’s recent expose series on DCI Group is worth reading.)
  • Proof of the DCI Group’s work on the United4Jobs campaign can be found on the Internet archive WayBack Machine. The contact information of Andrea Saul and other employees at DCI group at the time, can be found on United4Jobs’ press releases, webpages, and reports.
  • Tech Central Station (TCS), was another DCI Group project, built as a corporate op-ed page, funded by a number of companies to get third party voices published on issues they cared about. TCS prominently featured climate change denial content. In 2003, the year Tech Central was launched, ExxonMobil gave a $95,000 grant to an organization called “Tech Central Science Foundation” which we presume served as the fiscal agent behind Tech Central Station, though no such Foundation ever registered with the IRS, as far as we know.
  • From 2003 to 2005, these two DCI Group’s creations, Tech Central and United4Jobs, were used together to fight the McCain-Lieberman legislation.  Tech Central Science Foundation, the ExxonMobil funded org, paid Charles River and Associates to produce a report published in October 2003 on the theoretical economic impact of the McCain-Lieberman bill. United4Jobs pushed that report throughout 2004 and 2005 claiming repeatedly that one million jobs would be lost if the McCain-Lieberman climate bill was passed and implemented.
  • The Exxon-funded Cooler Heads Coalition also pushed the TCS report on McCain-Lieberman in its June 2004 newsletter. Published by CEI, the newsletter cites United for Jobs and the American Council for Capital Formation (another Exxon funded organization) as co-releasing the report. ACCF received a large ExxonMobil grant ($255,000) that year including $180,000 earmarked for “climate change”.
  • Tech Central Station served as a hub for climate science and policy misinformation during this period, much of which was aimed at McCain-Lieberman. TCS’s Daily Science Roundtable included a slew of climate change deniers such as Willie Soon, Sallie BaliunasTim BallRobert C. Balling, Jr., David Legates, Patrick Michaels, Roy Spencer, and others, according to an archived version of their website.
  • As CIC has previously written, Tech Central and DCI Group ran multiple climate change denial campaigns for ExxonMobil during this period, attacking Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth” and in June 2006, less than a year after Hurricane Katrina, DCI and Tech Central produced and distributed a canned Video News Release (VNRdeclaring that there was no scientific evidence linking dangerous hurricanes with climate change. The VNR listed “TCS Daily Science Roundtable” as the producer.  VNRs are pre-produced segments designed to look like a news story, contracted generally by corporations, sent out to news stations in hopes of getting them aired as if they were news.  This one was aired on at least one TV station along the Gulf Coast.

Kochtopus Tentacles Ensnare McCain

Well before the Koch brothers became a household name, they were hard at work influencing our political system.  It is safe to assume that the Koch campaign against climate progress ramped up in the mid-2000s targeted Senator McCain.

  • McCain’s presidential campaign was staffed by the long-time Koch operative Nancy Pfotenhauer. The Koch network veteran became one of  McCain’s top policy advisors for his 2008 campaign, after she left her position as the leader of the Koch-controlled Americans for Prosperity (AFP). Pfotenhauer began working directly for Koch Industries in the mid-1990s and led its federal lobbying shop during Clinton’s second term. After Bush became president in 2001, Pfotenhauer took on another Koch-funded group (Independent Women’s Forum) and then became the head of the core Koch-controlled group in Washington, DC, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). CSE was created by Charles Koch’s right-hand man Richard Fink and later became AFP. Pfotenhauer left AFP to work for McCain in 2007. That year, McCain attended the Kochs’ first AFP “Defending the American Dream” summit. After he lost, she went back to Koch Industries as an official spokesperson and started a consulting firm that represented Koch Industries and the Kochs in the media.
  • CSE was active in attacking efforts to address climate change when Pfotenhauer was working for Koch Industries directly and when she helmed CSE (which she led for a period as a joint operation with the Koch-funded Independent Women’s Forum). For example, in 2003, CSE staunchly backed Exxon in its shareholder controversy and lobbied against McCain’s Climate Stewardship Acts. CSE also advised members of Congress that it would score and publicize to their constituents their votes on McCain’s legislation. After CSE was rebranded as AFP on her watch, the Koch group continued to attack measures to mitigate climate change in numerous ways. (PDFs available.)
  • In 2008, as Pfotenhauer served as one of McCain’s top advisors on energy policy and touted his “market based approach” to our climate and environment, AFP ran a national state-by-state roadshow to influence elections and policy, called the “Hot Air Tour”.

  • The tour was aimed at vilifying the EPA, attacking the very notion of greenhouse gas regulation, and casting doubt on climate change science. AFP even launched a hot air balloon in McCain’s home state, in the fall before the election, after he had chosen climate-change denier Sarah Palin to be his VP, whom Pfotenhauer defended in TV interviews.

There is clearly more to tell. Get in touch with further questions or additional information at [email protected].



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