Dozens of individuals and groups urging states to reopen amid the Covid-19 pandemic have historical financial ties to coal and oil and gas companies and conservative billionaires who have invested in climate disinformation.
Past funders of the current critics of stay-at-home orders include the bankrupt coal company Murray Energy and oil giant ExxonMobil, as well as Koch and Mercer family foundations, according to DeSmog, a group that tracks the money behind anti-climate-action campaigns.
Some of the contributions tallied are recent and others are at least five years old or older. ExxonMobil, for example, had broken ties with two of the groups in this story by 2006. There is no evidence that these companies and foundations are funding ongoing campaigns to reopen businesses.
But Brendan DeMelle, executive director of DeSmog, said the “information echo chamber” of interests downplaying both the climate crisis and the pandemic would not be what it is today without fossil fuel funding.
“While we don’t have direct evidence of specific grant money going for Covid denial, none of these operations would exist without their support over the years,” DeMelle said.
Donations to not-for-profit thinktanks are nearly impossible to track in real time because of a lag in reporting. It could take years to reveal which interests are currently funneling money to the groups helping to organize and expand shutdown protests. Even then, much of the funds could be hidden, donated anonymously through third-party not-for-profits, DeMelle said.
But DeSmog’s research shows many of the calls to end stay-at-home orders are coming from people associated with a wide-ranging network of organizations that together seek to limit the power of government and thwart intervention in business. That web of thinktanks was built years ago on contributions from the fossil fuel industry and conservative philanthropists.
Now, the fossil fuel industry is struggling amid government lockdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and allowing people to move freely and return to work would help the sector by boosting energy demand.
As Donald Trump has advocated for a quicker reopening, often against the recommendations of his expert advisers, Republican voters’ views on how to handle the coronavirus have shifted substantially.
Just 43% say it is more important for the government to address the spread of the virus than the economy, down from 65% about a month ago.
Trump’s calls for a quicker return to regular life have grown in popularity as they have been echoed throughout conservative media, often backed by thinktanks connected to the oil and coal industries.
In Wisconsin, where people have protested against a stay-at-home order, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) filed an amicus brief with the state supreme court challenging the authority of the governor and the health department to continue to require people to stay home without sign-off from the Republican-controlled legislature. The court last week struck down the state’s order, calling it a “vast seizure of power”.
Charles Koch, the 20th-richest billionaire in the world, runs Koch Industries, which is involved in oil operations and energy-intensive industries. He and his late brother, David, have funded a network of conservative thinktanks.
Phil Kerpen, a Koch political operative, has argued that lockdowns are “unscientific”, and “medieval” and don’t save lives. Kerpen is president of American Commitment, a group that through 2016 has received at least $6.9m from Freedom Partners, which is partially funded by the Kochs, according to DeSmog. He was previously vice-president of AFP.
An AFP spokesman said the group has been “unambiguous” in its position that “the choice between full shutdown and immediately opening everything is a false choice”, and that it is working with officials and businesses to develop standards to “safely reopen the economy without jeopardizing public health”.
“Past grants do not define our position on reopening the economy – to suggest otherwise is disingenuous,” the AFP spokesman said. “None of the grants referenced have anything to do with stay-at-home orders and some of them were made many years ago.”
The Washington Post has reported that the Convention of States, a project launched in 2015 with money from the family foundation of the billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, has helped to coordinate activism against the stay-at-home orders around the country.
The conservative thinktank the Manhattan Institute – which over the years has takenat least $1m from ExxonMobil through 2018, according to the environment group Greenpeace USA, as well as $3.2m from Koch foundations and $2.2m from the Mercer Family Foundation – has published commentary questioning the value of shutdowns.
Brian Riedl, writing in the Manhattan Institute publication City Journal, called the shutdowns unsustainable, saying just a few months “will cost the government and the economy trillions of dollars”.
An ExxonMobil spokesman, Casey Norton, noted the company had not contributed to most of the groups in this story for years and said it was not pushing to lift stay-at-home orders.
“We continually evaluate our memberships and participation in organizations, and we do not contribute to organizations if we are not actively involved,” Norton said.
“As for return to work, our focus right now is on ensuring the safety and health of our entire workforce and to do our part to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community.”
The Daily Caller, a news organization that has received $3.5m through 2017 from Koch foundations through its non-profit, has run articles suggesting Democrats want to kill the economy to keep Trump from getting re-elected.
“The mainstream media, which works for the Democrat party, wanted us shut down more, and for longer,” said opinion contributor Ron Hart.
Often, funding by the fossil fuel industry is less obvious and more difficult to follow. Bits and pieces of financial connections are revealed in regulatory and court filings, but many are hidden behind dark money groups.
One shutdown critic, author Alex Epstein, runs the for-profit thinktank the Center for Industrial Progress. Epstein has said his clients include the president of the Kentucky Coal Association and thecoaltruth.com, a project DeSmog links to employees of Alliance Coal.
Epstein in a podcast compared the coronavirus to the seasonal flu and said “the purpose of the government is not to extend people’s lives. It’s to leave us free to live our lives as we judge best.”
Epstein told the Guardian his clients pay him “solely to advise them on *their* messaging”, and that “none of them have any influence on what I say publicly, on this or any other issue”.
Other critics of reopening are connected with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Council for Capital Formation and the Heartland Institute.
Chris Horner, a former fellow at CEI, in an op-ed in the Washington Times in March warned that “the current ‘coronavirus economy’ could become legally mandated, with no recovery permitted but only worsening, in the name of climate change”. Horner received funding from the coal company Alpha Natural Resources, according to a bankruptcy filing.
Joel Zinberg, of CEI, and Richard Rahn – who is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and board member of ACCF – have also criticized stay-at-home orders. Rahn has called Covid-19 the “Chinese Communist party virus”.
ACCF as an organization “has taken no position on the stay-at-home orders or any prospective timeline for reopening the economy”, said the group’s CEO, Mark Bloomfield.
The Heartland Institute, which denies the severity of anthropogenic climate change, has received $6.7m through 2017 from the Mercer Family Foundation, as well as $130,000 from coal company Murray Energy. The group received $25,000 from a Koch foundation for one specific project and got money from ExxonMobil until 2006.
“What’s the time limit on being labeled ‘Koch-funded’ or ‘Exxon-funded’? A decade? Two? Also, who cares?” Lakely said. He did not respond to questions about Mercer funding.