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If You Care About the Climate, Pay Attention to Koch Cash

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced new methane restrictions at the COP26 conference, which will require a 30 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030 by more than 100 countries. The move underscores the importance of climate policy regulations, especially in the face of discouraging prospects of national action from Congress.

But Biden will find it hard to avoid the reach of dark money in his pivot to the regulatory sphere, especially from the largest private company in the United States, Koch Industries. Since 2005, Charles Koch oversaw grants of almost half a billion dollars to hundreds of colleges across the country. One university research center—with millions in Koch and ExxonMobil funding—is especially poised to combat this shift: the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. The Regulatory Studies Center leverages George Washington University’s reputation to inject academic credibility into journal articles and public comments that favor deregulation.

For 11 years, the RSC has successfully undermined federal environmental regulations, cultivated a hub of deregulatory soft power, and seen its members rise to influential regulatory positions. As a GWU student who has been researching the RSC for the better part of a year, I am here to tell you that it is so much more than just a campus issue. If you have a stake in US climate policy, pay attention to the RSC. If my research and subsequent report make anything clear, it’s that the center has been allowed to quietly disrupt regulations on behalf of the fossil fuel industry for too long.

The fossil fuel industry takes advantage of the RSC’s intimate relationship with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the agency responsible for approving or rejecting regulations based on their economic impact. OIRA is an attractive target for corporate interests because warped versions of cost-benefit analysis portray regulations as a net loss to society, justifying their rejection or modification. RSC Director Susan Dudley and frequent contributor John Graham both served as director of OIRA at different stages of the George W. Bush presidency, and seven of the eight individuals ever to be confirmed as director of OIRA have contributed to the RSC, either through articles, public comments, or as panelists at events the center hosted. As a result, the center wields immense power in setting the OIRA agenda, enabling the fossil fuel industry to shape institutional consensus.

The RSC grooms its staff to assume powerful regulatory positions. Sofie Miller specialized in Department of Energy regulations when she worked as an RSC research analyst, and implemented the very deregulatory suggestions offered by her RSC research when she joined the department in 2018. Miller has since moved to OIRA, where she has been accused of stalling the review process for Biden’s energy regulations. In addition to Miller, three former RSC student fellows currently work as analysts at OIRA, and in 2019, RSC Community Scholar Tony Cox was tapped to sit on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, where he advocated for fewer air pollution regulations. Most recently, to the dismay of progressives, RSC Research Professor Bridget Dooling joined Biden’s regulatory transition team, helping craft the regulatory agenda of the Biden administration.

The RSC has achieved several federal policy victories, though none more notable than the recalibration of the social cost of carbon (SCC), the figure used by regulatory agencies to determine the negative economic impact of CO2 emissions. The SCC was valued at $50/ton when it was created under Obama, but RSC worked tirelessly against that standard, releasing a combined total of 10 articles and public comments arguing for it to be reduced. When the SCC was reduced to a level of $1 or $7—depending on the discount rate—an article published by RSC affiliates was cited as the EPA’s rationale for the policy change. In reducing the SCC, the Regulatory Studies Center helped slash the calculated economic benefit of all proposed carbon emissions regulations, increasing the likelihood of rejection.

Now, as methane regulations take center stage, the RSC will be sure to maintain a vocal role in the policy discourse. When the EPA begins soliciting comments on Biden’s methane regulation, I know it will be hearing from the RSC. As prospects for robust climate policy dwindle and the threat of climate change draws nearer, the Koch-funded research center at George Washington University will only grow stronger.

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