Congress investigates how Marathon Petroleum and Koch Network influenced clean cars rollbacks

Marathon “worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards.”

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Image Credit: Forbes

On Thursday, May 28, several Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, along with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), sent a letter to Marathon Petroleum seeking information on the oil company’s involvement in the Trump administration’s rollback of clean car standards. The Congressmembers are also investigating Marathon’s coordination with, and financial ties to, various free-market groups and whether those relationships are compatible with the groups’ tax-exempt status.

The letter follows an October 29, 2019 House Oversight Environment Subcommittee hearing on oil industry influence in the vehicle fuel economy rollback, and comes one day after 23 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit challenging the rollback.

The Trump administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, finalized on March 31, weakens greenhouse gas emission regulations and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards from a 5 percent annual increase to 1.5 percent yearly increase. Under the new rule, fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks would decrease from 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 to 40 miles per gallon. Laxer fuel economy standards means vehicles will consume more gasoline, which explicitly benefits the oil industry. According to Senator Whitehouse’s testimony during the House Oversight hearing last fall, the Obama-era clean car standards were expected to save Americans $1.7 trillion dollars in fuel savings, which is lost revenue for oil companies like Marathon.

As the members of Congress write in their letter to Marathon President and CEO Michael J. Hennigan, the weakening of the clean car standards “raises serious questions about whether the Trump Administration is endangering the health and safety of the American people for the sake of higher profits for oil companies.”

Marathon and the Koch Policy Network: A secret alliance to burn more gas

The letter cites a December 2018 New York Times investigative story that revealed a “covert campaign” by the oil industry, led by Marathon Petroleum, to push for the rollback. According to that story, Marathon “worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards.”

Those Koch network groups, led by the American Energy Alliance, whose president Tom Pyle is a former Koch Industries lobbyist, sent multiple letters to Trump administration officials calling for lowering vehicle emissions standards. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity launched a national consumer campaign to support lower standards, while the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — another Koch-funded organization — lobbied state legislators with a model resolution “in favor of weakening the standards and eliminating California’s ability to set its own standards,” according to the Democrats’ letter.

Additionally, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), an influential oil industry trade group in which Koch Industries and Marathon hold considerable power, worked with Republican governors to issue talking points supporting the rollback. AFPM also generated a front group called Energy4US and a related Facebook campaign to drum up support and submit public comments to the federal agency in charge of the proposed rule. 

“Given the large number of tax exempt, non-profit organizations that appear to have been activated in support of the oil industry’s campaign to weaken emissions standards, we have questions about the relationship between industry and these organizations, as well as whether their operations are consistent with their tax exempt status,” Sen. Whitehouse and Reps. Harley Rouda, Carolyn B. Maloney, and Rashida Tlaib wrote in their letter to Marathon. Maloney is chair of the House Oversight Committee, while Rouda is chair, and Tlaib vice chair, of the Environment subcommittee.

The four Democratic Congressmembers are requesting all documents and communications from January 2017 to present regarding contact between any Marathon representative and the Trump administration. Additionally, they are seeking an itemized list of all donations and financial assistance from Marathon to two dozen organizations such as AFPM, DonorsTrustDonors Capital Fund, and ALEC, as well as seeking all documents and communications between Marathon and many of these same Koch network groups. The Congressmembers set a deadline of June 11 for Marathon to comply.

Marathon Petroleum declined to comment. A company spokesperson simply said they “had received the letter and are in the process of reviewing it.”

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