Post corrects Koch oil sands story, but critics remain unsatisfied

April 9

The Washington Post has run a correction to its story on the Koch brothers’ interests in the Canadian oil sands.  As I discussed here and here, the original story by Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson claimed that the Kochs were the largest lease owners in the Canadian oil sands, yet no one has been able to substantiate that claim. The original story now bears a correction, and the authors have written another follow-up detailing what is and is not known about who owns oil or gas leases in the Canadian oil sands.  The bottom line: It appears that the Kochs are the largest foreign (i.e. non-Canadian) lease holders in the oil sands, at least if one only looks at oil leases (and excludes natural gas leases).

Despite the correction, John Hinderaker, who was one of the first to challenge the claims of the original article, is unsatisfied.  He argues that because some members of Congress inquired about the Kochs’ interest in the Keystone XL pipeline several days after the original story ran, there might have been some behind-the-scenes coordination between those offices and the Post reporters who wrote the story.  This seems like quite a stretch to me.  Had the congressional inquiry occurred the same day as the initial story, Hinderaker might have a case that there’s at least an appearance of coordination.  Smoke, fire, etc. But the letter was sent several days later, suggesting nothing more than that the story prompted additional inquiry. Unless Hinderaker has actual evidence of coordination, he should drop it.

The charges against the Post’s Juliet Eilperin for an alleged conflict-of-interest on this story are overwrought as well.  Eilperin covers energy and environmental issues, and her husband works on climate policy.  Big deal.  Unless she’s actually covering his work, I  don’t see the problem.  I believe the Post’s policy on conflicts is sufficient and have no reason to believe it’s been disregarded here.

Recall that when some folks on the Left argued that Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse in NFIB v. Sebelius, most disinterested observers realized it was ridiculous to argue that judges should recuse merely because their spouse has an expressed policy preference or engages in related policy work.  Justice Thomas had no obligation to recuse in NFIB, just as Justice Ginsburg had no reason to recuse in tax cases just because her husband was a prominent tax attorney.  I see no reason to treat reporters differently.  So the fact that Eilperin’s  husband works on climate change policy should not prevent her from all climate reporting, let alone reporting on other energy-related issues.  Hinderaker is reaching here too.

The initial Koch-oil sands story was sloppy and made a false claim.  The Post has run a correction.  Unless there is actual evidence of another problem (and I’ve seen none) that should end the matter.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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