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Harry Reid’s claim that the Koch brothers are ‘one of the main causes’ of climate change

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“While the Koch brothers admit to not being experts on the matter, these billionaire oil tycoons are certainly experts at contributing to climate change. That’s what they do very well. They are one of the main causes of this. Not a cause, one of the main causes.”

— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), floor speech, May 7, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly attacks the Koch brothers, the industrialists who are funding millions of dollars in attack ads against Democrats. On Wednesday, he used the recent White House report on climate change to charge that Koch Industries is “one of the main causes” of climate change.

That’s certainly an eyebrow-raising statement. What’s the evidence for that?

The Facts

In his remarks, Reid referred to a 2013 study by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst — the Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index.

U-Mass. “ranked Koch Industries as one of the nation’s biggest air and water polluters, period. In one year Koch Industries released 31 million pounds of toxic air,” Reid said. “How much is that? It’s more than Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil and General Electric combined emitted. They are the champions.”

Actually, the report lists Koch Industries at 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (CO2 equivalent emissions), which puts the company at 27th on the list, responsible for 0.36 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Exxon Mobil landed in 14th place, with 39 million tons, Dow Chemical was 44th with 15 million tons and GE was not on the list. Combined, those companies actually had more than double the emissions of Koch Industries.

So does one-third of 1 percent in the United States make a company “the champions” and “one of the main causes” of global climate change? Perhaps that’s a judgment call, but the Koch brothers’ contribution shrinks even further when seen in global context — to about 6/1,000th of a percent. That’s because there are many companies overseas that are far bigger polluters.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers recently identified 50 global companies responsible for 73 percent of total emissions between 2009 and 2013. (See Appendix IV.) Koch Industries did not make the list, though Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical did.

Carbon emissions, of course, build up over time. Another study, by Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services, identified the 90 leading producers of carbon dating back to 1750. (The Guardian newspaper created a terrific interactive graphic that illustrates the impact of different companies from around the globe.)

Once again, Koch Industries does not make the list. Heede, in an interview, said that Koch did not qualify because it does not actually extract fuel from the earth, such as petroleum or coal, but is simply involved in derivative functions, such as refining and transport. From his perspective, Koch Industries’ impact on climate change was relatively minimal. “They are not an original extractor,” he said.

Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, provided the following statement in response:

The fact is that Koch Industries is one of the leading U.S. carbon emitters, and there is no doubt that the carbon emissions for which they are responsible have contributed to climate change and the dangerous and often deadly consequences that result. We can argue over whether being 27th out of many thousands of companies qualifies as “major,” but we would argue that it does.
The overall point of Senator Reid’s speech was true: Climate change is real and the Koch brothers — who as co-owners of Koch Industries are two of the leading U.S. emitters of the carbon emissions that cause climate change — are spending millions to mislead the public and muddy the existing scientific consensus in order to increase their profit margins. The Koch brothers have been very clear that they want free rein to pollute as much as they want and emit as much carbon into our atmosphere as they want while the rest of us suffer the consequences.

The Pinocchio Test

Regular readers know that The Fact Checker has often faulted politicians who deny the science behind climate change. But that does not give license to people on the other side to make exaggerated claims.

In making the case against the Koch brothers, Reid claimed that they are “one of the main causes” of climate change, saying those words twice. Then he inaccurately characterized the report from which he drew his information, wrongly saying that Koch Industries produced more than three other companies combined in order to assert they are “the champions.”

Certainly, Koch Industries contributes to climate change, but the relative impact falls well short of being a “major cause.” We understand Reid’s overall point, but it’s important to stick to the facts when making such claims. Given that Reid did not accurately describe the U-Mass. report, our rating on this statement tips toward Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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