IRS responds to Greenpeace call to investigate Koch brothers' tax-deductible climate denial

04/21/2015 02:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Why do the oil and gas billionaire Koch brothers get a tax break for funding climate change science denial? The IRS is finally investigating a Greenpeace complaint on the matter.

Earlier this year, the New York Times exposed the secret relationships between a well known climate change denier and the fossil fuel industry. The Times revealed that Dr. Willie Soon had been paid over 1.6 million dollars to create scientifically dubious studies absolving the fossil fuel industry of any responsibility for climate change. His funders included ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and Southern Company, a large coal-fired utility.

Willie Soon is a rare and valuable tool for the fossil fuel industry because he is one of the very few climate deniers with an actual background in science. Billed as a regular academic who just happened to disagree with 97% of actual climate scientists, Soon's work is omnipresent in Congress and state legislatures, and wherever there else there is a "debate" on climate change.

While Soon had long been known to be on the payroll of major polluters, new documents discovered through investigations by Greenpeace showed that Soon's work to obscure the facts on climate change were promised as "deliverables" to his corporate funders.

The documents also revealed a potential bombshell - the tax exempt "charity" Charles G Koch Foundation was paying for Dr. Soon's lobbying against renewable energy and climate change solutions. This means that the Kochs, heirs to an oil and gas fortune that tops $80 billion, could write the funding of Willie Soon off on their taxes. This potentially violates of the IRS rule that prohibits tax-exempt organizations like the Charles G Koch Foundation from attempting to influence legislation.

Willie Soon cartoon Tom Avila Willie Soon

Last week, the IRS responded to a letter from Greenpeace that pointed out this potentially illegal lobbying by the Koch brothers. The IRS letter declined to confirm whether the agency would take action on our complaint, but the letter did encourage Greenpeace to submit additional information to the IRS Dallas office. An IRS staff member also confirmed they were reviewing the complaint.

The complaint, sent in February, is based on documents obtained from a Greenpeace records request, which contained details of Soon's interactions with the Koch brothers. These included evidence that Soon received $230,000 in funding from the Charles G Koch Foundation to create papers that question the existence of climate change.

In his proposals to the Kochs, Soon claimed his work to obscure the cause and existence of climate change would be used for "informing public policy," a euphemism for lobbying.

True to his word, Soon used his Koch-funded papers denying climate change while testifying in Kansas against renewable energy legislation. Soon showed slides of his Koch funded research to Kansas legislators in an attempt to get them to vote down renewable energy standards.

Soon's research was also used in Congressional testimony to "question the belief that greenhouse gases are the dominant cause of observed climate change." Soon quickly sent a letter bragging about this Congressional testimony to the Charles G Koch Foundation. The letter, which asked for a funding extension, touted the testimony as "progress" towards the Charles Koch Foundation's project. In the Congressional testimony based on Soon's research, there is no mention of Koch or any fossil funding.

Interestingly, The Charles G Koch Foundation knew that funding Dr. Soon's work was a legally risky move. In letters to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Dr. Soon's employer, the Koch Foundation was very careful to stress that the Koch grant "will not be used to influence legislation." The Koch brothers have contributed 79 million dollars to climate change science denial organizations since 1997.

The Charles G Koch Foundation is named for the co-owner and chief executive of Koch Industries. Charles Koch and his brother David, known as the Koch brothers, have used their vast fortunes ($40 billion a piece) to gain huge and disproportionate political influence in the US. The Koch's, through their network of front groups, have pledged to spend nearly $1 billion dollars on the upcoming presidential election.