The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, where they have been major players for 50 years, and remain deeply invested.
The key moment came in 1969, when Charles Koch secured full ownership of a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota. Almost forty years later he called the acquisition "one of the most significant events in the evolution of our company."
Below is an interactive timeline that tells the story of the Kochs' 50 years in the tar sands. It updates an in-depth story InsideClimate News published in 2012.
The libertarian conservative Koch brothers and the progressive liberal Tom Steyer are in a billionaire's showdown in the current election cycle, spending heavily in Congressional races across the country on their favorite candidates.
In an odd twist, the counterpunching last week was over culpability for carbon pollution.
The Koch brothers got to watch Steyer take an uppercut from an unexpected source—the New York Times. The paper took aim at Steyer—climate champion and Keystone XL pipeline foe—for having profited handsomely in the not-too-distant past from financing coal plants.
It was a bitter irony for Steyer's climate activist supporters that he emerged from the ring bruised as a carbon polluter. They blamed the Times for delivering the Kochs' sucker punch.
A blog called Powerline with ties to Charles and David, the activists said, was the source of the Times story, and they faulted the paper for doing a hit piece on a man who has repented his history with coal and has since made tackling climate change his life's goal.
Steyer's turnaround took moral courage, they argued, and asked: What about the Koch brothers? What is their history with global warming emissions?
A Canadian division of Koch Industries is reviewing a range of offers to buy up to 220,000 net acres of its many undeveloped oil sands properties within Alberta's vast reserves of oil sands.
The company, Calgary-based Koch Oil Sands Operating ULC, said in June it was looking for strategic investors to help accelerate production on six properties held by the limited partnership Koch Exploration Canada. The company later said it would entertain offers to acquire the entire Koch Exploration partnership or to buy any of the projects.
The Koch projects will extract bitumen using a non-mining technique called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), and are in various stages of development. The projects could ultimately yield an estimated 2.9 billion barrels of "recoverable" resources and could position the buyer "to be a top tier Canadian bitumen producer," according to an online description of the offering.
The move by Koch to sell off one of its partnerships pulls the curtain back further on the Koch family's deep but quiet involvement in Canada's tar sands industry. Koch Industries has had a stake going back 50 years in Canadian heavy oil through mining, pipeline development and refining. Its Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota is now responsible for about 20 percent of the oil sands crude being piped into the United States and has played a key role in the growth of the family's fortune. The family stands to profit further from growing U.S. reliance on tar sands imports.
Over the last decade, Charles and David Koch have emerged into public view as billionaire philanthropists pushing a libertarian brand of political activism that presses a large footprint on energy and climate issues. They have created and supported non-profit organizations, think tanks and political groups that work to undermine climate science, environmental regulation and clean energy. They are also top donors to politicians, most of them Republicans, who support the oil industry and deny any human role in global warming.
What is less well documented are the many Koch businesses that benefit from the brothers' efforts to push the center of American political discourse rightward, closer to their own convictions. At the top of the list are the Koch family's long and deep investments in Canada's heavy oil industry, which have been central to the company's initial growth and subsequent diversification since 1959.
Because Koch Industries is a privately held company, the public has little access to information about the depth and diversity of its Canadian oil sands holdings. Over the past several months, however, InsideClimate News has pieced together a rough picture of the company's involvement in the industry, using published reports from the National Energy Board of Canada; documents and data extracted from the website of Canada's Energy Resource Conservation Board; securities disclosures and filings of Koch businesses in Canada; court documents from an inheritance battle that pitted Charles and David Koch against their two other brothers; Canadian and U.S. media reports; company newsletters and press releases; and two books, one written by Charles Koch and the other the autobiography of a long-time Koch company director.
These sources reveal that Koch Industries has touched virtually every aspect of the tar sands industry since the company established a toehold in Canada more than 50 years ago. It has been involved in mining bitumen, the hydrocarbon resin found in the oil sands; in pipeline systems to collect and transport Canadian crude; in exporting the heavy oils to the U.S.; in refining the sulfurous, low-grade feedstock; and in the subsequent distribution and sale of a variety of finished products, from jet fuel to asphalt. The company has also created or collaborated with other companies that have become leading players in the development of Alberta's oil resources, and it remains deeply invested in western Canada’s oil patch.
Koch Industries declined to answer any questions for this story.
In recent months Koch Industries Inc., the business conglomerate run by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has repeatedly told a U.S. Congressional committee and the news media that the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline has "nothing to do with any of our businesses."
But the company has told Canadian energy regulators a different story.
In 2009, Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, an Alberta-based subsidiary of Koch Industries, applied for—and won—"intervenor status" in the National Energy Board hearings that led to Canada's 2010 approval of its 327-mile portion of the pipeline. The controversial project would carry heavy crude 1,700 miles from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.
In the form it submitted to the Energy Board, Flint Hills wrote that it "is among Canada's largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters. Consequently, Flint Hills has a direct and substantial interest in the application" for the pipeline under consideration.
To be approved as an intervenor, Flint Hills had to have some degree of "business interest" in Keystone XL, Carole Léger-Kubeczek, a National Energy Board spokeswoman, told InsideClimate News. Intervenors are granted the highest level of access in hearings, with the option to ask questions. The Energy Board approved Canada's segment of the pipeline with little opposition, and Flint Hills did not exercise its right to speak.