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David Koch Is Gone, but His Pipelines Are Here to Stay

A fortune built on exploiting the earth funds an empire dedicated to smothering free speech.

Alex Wong/Getty

David Koch, the marginally less-vile of the vile duo known as the Koch Brothers, is dead. Setting aside the fact that Charles was always the more powerful and, as a result, the more interesting of the two, the death of his brother allows for a moment to consider a world without either of them. It would be nice to believe that once both have passed, American politicians on the right will suddenly snap to the realization that the planet is rapidly becoming less livable and begin combatting the climate crisis with unprecedented gusto. It would be nice, but also reductive … and ridiculous.

The Koch Brothers established a slick machine built on drilling oil and dumping chemicals; for decades, they have been perched atop it, pointing it in whichever direction they wanted. In hopes of enriching themselves, of wielding enough capital to rise above the petty politics that binds the less wealthy to trivial matters like democratic elections and “the news cycle,” they plunged their hands deep into the earth and pulled out whatever they could sell. And with the money they accrued, they chose to play the role of kingmakers in conservative politics.

As Brian Kahn wrote for Earther, the majority of these efforts have been focused on muddying the climate change debate, or at least paying off politicians to muddy the debate for them. The messier the debate, the more leniency they were granted to enrich themselves even more—and the cycle played on and on.

The Koch-topus (as it is sometimes called) they vivified was not a single entity, but a series of organizations, super PACS, lobbying firms, think tanks, legislation factories, and legal institutes. Although the sprawl of that conglomerated power is likely something the American public won’t be able to comprehend for years to come—entire books have been written just trying to grasp at the enormity—the brothers’ tentacles all slithered out in the same direction.

One specific aspect of their work that helped secure our avoidable demise: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Funded in large part by the Koch Brothers, ALEC is a conservative bill-printing factory. And while a great deal of its work concerns strong-arming the Kochs’ puppets on Capitol Hill, it’s in state houses where the most despicable examples of ALEC’s craft live and thrive.

State legislative bodies are not exactly the producers of the sexiest news, save for the most extreme of actions (North Carolina’s bathroom bill, Alabama’s abortion ban, Oregon’s conservatives fleeing the state because they were so averse to acting on climate change), so it made perfect sense that the two most well-known political influencers of their generation would seize these often overlooked institutions for themselves. The Kochs poured the runoff of their obscene wealth directly into the pockets of state legislators in almost every corner of the nation; in return, these captured pols fed (and continue to feed) the beast anything it wanted. And what the brothers wanted was to smother any person, Native or not, that would ever dare reenact the Standing Rock protests when the pipelines inevitably came for them.

The fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)—a project designed to move shale oil from fields in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois—began in 2016. Because the path took DAPL through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, threatening waterways and ancestral lands, groups of Native water protectors, environmentalists, and political activists occupied the area, calling national attention to the dangers of hydrocarbon extraction to the climate and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. But in the years following the momentous #NoDAPL occupation, something strange and insidious started to happen in legislative bodies: Conservative politicians in dozens of states began introducing bills that looked an awful lot alike, all with the express purpose of criminalizing pipeline protests.

It started in South Dakota. The legislation, Senate Bill 189 and Senate Bill 190, cleared the way for the state government to sue any out-of-state groups and individuals that contributed to future pipeline protests. Not only that, the bills included a clause that allowed for a “third party” to join the lawsuits. Some possible third parties: The oil and construction companies being contracted to install and fill these destructive projects.

The timing seemed convenient. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was nearing—in fact, the permit was cleared today by the Nebraska Supreme Court—and South Dakota didn’t want to be made out to be the bad guy like its northern neighbor was during the Dakota Access Pipeline efforts. But then the same bills, with minor tweaks, were starting to crop up in state governments across the nation. Next it was North Dakota, then Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, and West Virginia.

This trend is typical to America’s lengthy history of codifying and recodifying laws to steal and profit off Native land and the natural resources above and below it. Beyond typical, though, it’s deflating. It’s anti-democratic. It’s terrifying. And it’s exactly the brand of power that allowed David Koch to draw his last breath with a smile, knowing that long after he and Charles have returned to the earth they helped poison, at least the pipelines and the money would remain.

This is what preserving a legacy looks like.