The Kochs' stunning Tesla hypocrisy: Why their new clean-energy alliance doesn't sit right

The Koch-backed AFP teams up with a leading environmental group -- and reveals its own hypocrisy in the process

Published February 18, 2015 5:45PM (EST)

David Koch                                      (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
David Koch (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

A Koch-funded, climate-denying, anti-renewable energy political advocacy group is teaming up with an environmentalist organization -- to advocate for electric cars.

Usually when Salon Sustainability delves into news of the weird, it has something to do with or cow farts or eating bugs. But today's offering comes in the form of a letter, signed by both Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Sierra Club, along with eight other public interest groups, voicing support for Tesla Motors in its battle to bypass the dealership and sell its electric vehicles straight to consumers. It's an unlikely partnership, to be sure -- and one that, ultimately, says more about the Kochs' fossil fueled hypocrisy than anything else.

But to start with, why would a group like AFP concern itself at all with clean transportation, if not to try and crush it? It all goes back to a battle Tesla's been waging, for years now, to work outside of the confines of the traditional car dealership model, in which manufacturers are legally forbidden from dealing directly with car-buying consumers. The company's had mixed results: Direct sales of cars were recently banned in Michigan and New Jersey, along with a bevy of other states, under laws stretching back decades that protect car dealers from competition with manufacturers.

The letter singles out Tesla because it's seen as the public face of this debate, with implications that extend to the broader automobile market. (The car-dealer lobby, for example, is the reason why you can't buy new cars online.) Acknowledging that they represent a "broad range" of interests, the groups argue that these laws are outdated in today's market, and that they "interfere with competition and efficient distribution, increase costs to consumers and mount barriers to the introduction of innovative and beneficial new technologies."

You can see AFP's free-market libertarian ideals informing the first aspects of that argument: “Because of the inefficiencies built into the current dealer exclusive model, allowing any manufacturer to sell directly to consumers will increase competitive pricing and reduce costs to the consumer," Jack Gillis, Director of Public Affairs for the non-partisan Consumer Federation of America, which also signed the letter, explained to Salon. "While clearly disruptive to the current sales model, like many other ‘traditional’ sales models that have been disrupted, this has the potential of totally changing the consumer’s car buying experience...while at the same time reducing the cost of a new car.”

The Sierra Club is likely more concerned with the fostering of innovation that could help replace traditional, greenhouse gas-emitting cars, while AFP would probably be backing direct distribution even if we were talking about Hummers. The letter, in fact, makes it clear that any effect direct distribution would have on climate change is just a side benefit: "Our concerns are not limited to Tesla," it's careful to point out, "as these laws have similarly negative effects on any company seeking to distribute their cars directly to consumers." But if this unlikely partnership teaches us anything, it's that you don't have to be an environmentalist -- or even believe in global warming -- to support affordable clean energy.

It's curious, though, that AFP seems to have recognized this principle in the case of Tesla, while at the same time remaining hell-bent on undermining rooftop solar -- a campaign that's put them at odds with certain factions of the Tea Party, which in turn have found themselves uniting with green groups. As with direct car sales, Libertarian advocates for solar industry are fighting against laws that protect traditional distributors -- in this case, powerful utility companies -- over new, disruptive industries, as well as the interests of the consumer. AFP, it would seem, wields its free-market ideals selectively -- and never when so doing directly threatens Big Energy.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Americans For Prosperity Koch Brothers Rooftop Sierra Club Tea Party Tesla