Jen Reel

Notorious Polluters Sponsor a Conference for Environmental Journalists


Above: Latricia Jones and her son walking in their neighborhood next to the Koch's Corpus Christi refinery

In October, while finishing up my story “Kochworld” on oil refineries in Corpus Christi owned by billionaires Charles and David Koch I received an invitation to participate in a journalism conference in Lubbock, held by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the nation’s oldest and most venerable journalism organization for reporters who cover the environment.

I was happy to have been invited. Hundreds of environmental journalists were attending the conference which would be hosted by Texas Tech University. Some reporters had come from as far away as Europe and Latin America.

But first I’d have to finish my story. All I needed were the comments I was waiting on from Koch Industries. Imagine my surprise when I get an email back from Koch Industries’ spokesperson Katie Stavinoha: “I am working on it. Have been at a SEJ deal.”

My first thought was, “What’s Koch Industries doing at a conference filled with environmental reporters?”

Turns out Koch Industries was a sponsor. The SEJ and Koch struck me as an odd match. Not only are the Koch brothers top spenders on global-warming-denial organizations and Washington lobbyists, they also publicly attack reporters, on their web site, who criticize their environmental record and business practices, and publish Internet ads on high traffic sites attacking reporters. (I would soon be subjected to this treatment.)

I probably wouldn’t have ever known the Kochs were sponsoring the conference if I hadn’t gotten that email from their public information officer. You’d be hard pressed to figure it out in the SEJ program. On page 33 of the 34-page conference booklet was a list of “generous contributors that made it possible for Texas Tech University to host the conference.”

Toward the end of that sponsor list was Matador Ranch. But no mention that the 130,000-acre ranch is owned and operated by Koch Agriculture Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. The ranch has hunting and deer breeding operations, as well as commercial and registered cattle, and Quarter horses.

The conference schedule included a tour of Matador Ranch to discuss conservation practices and “creative ways to find water,” according to the conference booklet.   Nowhere in the description of the tour did it say the ranch was owned by Koch Industries or that the Koch brothers would be paying for a lunch for the environmental reporters on the tour. The only inkling was that one of the speakers listed was Jim Mahoney, executive vice president for operations and compliance at Koch Industries. (Checking online the SEJ schedule now mentions the Kochs own the ranch. I’m not sure when SEJ made this change to the tour description. I downloaded my program on October 18th and there was no mention.)

At the conference in Lubbock, I ran into longtime environmental advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director at the nonprofit Public Citizen’s Texas office, who had been invited to speak on a panel about a “clean” coal plant in Odessa. I asked whether he knew that Koch Industries was a conference sponsor. Smith was as surprised as I was. I also spoke with Houston environmental activist Bryan Parras, who was speaking on a panel about environmental injustice at the conference. He had no idea either.

I brought this up with Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ while I was in Lubbock in October then again by phone last week. Parke arranges the agreements with hosting universities. Her duties include the implementation of board policies, strategic planning for the conferences, and budget and finance.

I raised the issue of Koch Industries environmental record and their aggressive treatment of reporters who write critically about their operations. In November, after my story “Kochworld” came out I experienced the wrath of Koch Industries firsthand. The company ran ads against me and The Texas Observer on Google and the Poynter media web site saying that we were “dishonest” and “deceptive” among other things.

So, my question to Parke was why does SEJ have a polluting company that publicly attacks journalists sponsoring its conference?

Parke said that SEJ had an agreement with Texas Tech, and it was the university that had raised the money from those sponsors to host the conference. This agreement was a “firewall,” she said, between the sponsors and the SEJ.  “We don’t feel it’s our job to tell them [Texas Tech] who can or cannot give money. I don’t even want to know how the sausage was made honestly,” Parke said. “My job is get the agreements with the institutions and let them fill that account however they can.”

Texas Tech gave the SEJ about $150,000 for catering and other event planning for the five-day conference. Parke said on average the sponsors gave between $5,000 to $7,000. As far as she knows, she said, the Kochs only spent $600 on lunches for everyone who attended the tour of their Matador Ranch. She said she didn’t know why the ranch was chosen as a tour site for the conference.

“The lunch thing is like, OK it’s $600,” she said. “Is it really worth the hassle of us trying to find another way to cover the lunches?… It seems a little abstract.”

But it wasn’t abstract for a lot of environmentalists and reporters who have dealt with Koch Industries. “Anytime sponsorship comes along there are all kinds of conditions and requests for special treatment that go along with that,” Tom “Smitty” Smith said.

Parke said there was no such special treatment at the conference. “We draw the line very clearly. If someone wants to be present at the conference they should buy an exhibit table. What we don’t sell is influence, and we’re very clear about that to the universities too, and we have to push back sometimes.”

Smitty brought up the other  SEJ conference sponsor he found problematic—Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—that operates a massive radioactive waste dump in West Texas. The dump and the company is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Kent Hance, chancellor of Texas Tech, has a financial interest in the dump and is the company’s former lobbyist. A tour was arranged for journalists to visit the radioactive waste site. But nowhere was there any information about Hance’s role in the company, or an opposing perspective on the panel of the tour, Smitty said.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, was dismayed to see a tour for out-of-state journalists to the WCS radioactive dump with few if any opponents included on the tour. Hadden is a longtime, vocal opponent of WCS.

When Hadden approached SEJ about her concerns they invited her to ride along on the bus and go on the tour. But WCS said Hadden could not go on the tour, though the company did allow someone from Sierra Club to tour the site. “I heard (WCS) said I would be too disruptive,” she says. “Which means I would ask questions that they didn’t want to answer.”

So Hadden asked if she could ride along on the three-hour bus ride and stay on the bus while the reporters toured the radioactive waste dump. WCS said, “no” to that as well, Hadden said.

“It was kind of a shock to be told I couldn’t go,” she said. Hadden added that in the end, she rode part of the way on the bus so she could give her perspective to the reporters. “I had to get off the bus halfway there,” she said. “ I had to arrange for somebody to follow the bus and pick me up.”

“What did the reporters say when the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and you got off?” I asked.

Hadden laughed. “One of the reporters asked. And an organizer of the tour said ‘they don’t want her there’. The reporters quickly understood. But I am very thankful that the reporters let me ride along on the bus.”

SEJ’s Beth Parke said she wasn’t sure what happened with Hadden and the WCS tour. “I heard that it might have been an ID issue. She didn’t do what other people did in time to get clearance.”

Parke said they’ve had many critical journalists lead industry tours during the conferences. “We had a situation with Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica who isn’t a favorite person of the fracking industry leading that tour.”

At the end of our conversation. Parke conceded that she could see how reporters should have known the Koch Brothers would be picking up the tab for lunches before arriving at their remote Matador Ranch. “I appreciate what you’re saying, and we probably should have told people. We’ll put it under advisement for the future,” she said.

It’s not easy funding a five-day conference every year, especially in the age of downsizing media organizations, she said. “Our members want the ethics, but they don’t want to pay for that.  If you wanted to go to a conference totally paid for by journalists and organized by journalists it would be $850 per registrant … and people just won’t pay that and so it comes down to a devil’s bargain. And the universities are over that same kind of barrel trying to educate people and keep their institutions afloat,” Parke said. “They end up in some tricky places… It’s just hard for us to police every relationship we make and get entangled with in these conferences. But we’ll do what we can do.”

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