The Metropolitan Museum of Art honored billionaire energy magnate David H. Koch on September 9 for the $65 million he donated toward the remodeling of the plaza that flanks the museum’s entrance and now carries his name. On the same day the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a report showing that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were growing at a record-breaking pace.
The plaza’s inauguration was followed by a sumptuous gala on behalf of Koch whose family fortune comes from the oil and gas business and who, along with his brother Charles Koch, is a leading funder of groups that deny the existence of human-caused climate change. Outside, a handful of protesters armed with banners, drums and burning sage performed what they referred to as a “ritual renaming of the plaza.” Noah Fischer, a performance artist and activist involved in the protest, said men like Koch should “not only be publicly reviled, but rejected from public space.”
Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in the United States. It operates in more than 60 countries and is involved in everything from oil refining to ranching. Through their company, the Kochs own American staple brands like Dixie, Brawny and Lycra; but they have amassed most of their fortune though investments in oil and gas. With a net worth of $42.9 billion each, they are the wealthiest siblings in the world, according to Forbes.
Although Koch Industries’ presence and influence are ubiquitous in the United States, it remains relatively unknown. “The company's products would come to touch everyone's lives, from the gas in our tanks and the steak on our forks to the paper towels in our pantries,” Daniel Schulman wrote in his book: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. “But it preferred to operate quietly — in David's words, to be ‘the biggest company you've never heard of.’ ”
The disdain that activists like Fischer feel for Koch is not unfounded. The Kochs staunchly oppose any kind of environmental regulation; using their multibillion dollar company to lobby against carbon taxes and, among other things, to bankroll an array of conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity which claims climate change policies would be “economically disastrous” for the country, according to a recent post on their website.
The Koch Brothers have been the subject of increased media coverage in recent years, much of it unflattering. Following in the footsteps of former robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who sought to rehabilitate their public reputation through philanthropy, David Koch has since 2008 made a number of hefty donations to some of New York’s leading cultural institutions: $20 million to the Museum of Natural History, $100 million to Lincoln Center, and now $65 million to the Met. “This is completing his crown of three jewels,” Fischer said. “He wants to greenwash his name and associate it with high culture and good things.”
The Met’s four-block plaza took two years to remodel. In a statement that would make environments groan, he Koch Family Foundation’s website touts the David H. Koch Plaza as being “designed with sustainability in mind.” According to the Met, the water in the two fountains that border the stairway entrance will be used year round, warmed in the winter by a recycled stream. The new trees were planted in pits that collect rain water and will grow healthy and tall, “maximizing their life spans and environmental benefits.” The pavement was replaced bearing the effects on the city’s storm water system in mind. And 2,130 feet of LED fixtures with an expected 50,000 hour lifespan will light the facade. Protester and radio show host Ken Gale was not impressed. “No lightbulb is going to undo what he has done to this country,” he said.
Records show that in 2000, Koch Industries was saddled with the “largest civil fine ever imposed on a company under any federal environmental law.” The corporation resolved two lawsuits in Houston and Tulsa, Okla. for unlawfully allowing “3 million gallons of crude oil and and related products to leak from its pipelines into ponds, lakes, rivers and streams.” The disaster, the government alleged, could have been prevented by proper maintenance.
The company’s website also claims to be committed to the environment by “forging productive relationships with regulatory agencies,” including the EPA. However, according to a 2013 study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, Koch Industries Public Sector LLC lobbied for the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011; a bill that, had it not died in the Senate, would have prevented the EPA from enforcing any kind of regulation on greenhouse gas emission. And last year, Koch industries again lobbied against “any regulation regarding carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions,” according to OpenSecrets.org.
As the day gave way and the number of protesters and onlookers dwindled, the amount of police barricades doubled. Activists were moved across Fifth Avenue and were confined to protesting in police pens. Arriving guests dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns gave the protesters perplexed looks from afar, then continued into the museum. “David Koch is a climate denier,” the demonstrators shouted.
The protesters voted and symbolically renamed the plaza “Art for the Planet Plaza.” However, the two fountains will remain emblazoned with Koch’s name for at least another 50 years. “It’s a temporary legacy,” Gale said. The harm he has done, he added, is not.