Freedom to Drive Coalition Brings the Koch Disinformation Playbook to Colorado


In recent years, the majority of Coloradans have been struggling to breathe clean air, and tailpipe emissions carry much of the blame. Lawmakers have started to take on this threat with a number of clean car standards and incentives coming out of the Governor’s office and the state legislature. However, a newly formed coalition of car dealers, the oil and gas industry, and free market advocates are working to put the brakes on clean air policies in Colorado, and they’re using a disinformation playbook often used by organizations in the Koch network.

Launched in March, the Freedom to Drive Coalition has fought against Colorado’s adoption of low emission vehicle standards (which the state’s Air Quality Control Commission approved in a unanimous 9-0 vote) and is now battling a complementary effort to adopt zero emission vehicle (ZEV, or electric car) standards that would greatly reduce tailpipe emissions.

Air quality in the Front Range — where more than 60 percent of Colorado residents live — has been so bad that it has violated national clean air standards for the last seven years. In 2018 alone, “there were 55 days when Coloradans were warned that exercise outdoors could be damaging to their health due to high ozone levels,” according to Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). That’s an average of one day per week where the air in this Rocky Mountain state’s most populated counties is so bad, it’s too dangerous to go out for a jog.

A full 30-40 percent of Colorado’s air pollution on high ozone days can be directly attributed to motor vehicles, according to a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report. (Another 30-40 percent is attributed to oil and gas operations in the Front Range. State authorities are working separately to reel in those pollutants, and fighting another network of oil and gas industry front groups and trade associations.)

While Colorado policymakers work with public health and environmental groups to reduce vehicle emissions, the Freedom to Drive Coalition has ramped up public relations and lobbying campaigns over the past six months to combat the low- and zero emissions vehicle standards.

Who’s Behind Colorado’s Freedom to Drive Coalition?

Immediately upon launching earlier this year, the Freedom to Drive Coalition put Colorado’s potential adoption of the low emission vehicle mandate in its crosshairs.

The group lists member organizations including oil industry groups like the Colorado Petroleum Association and the American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers (AFPM) and auto groups like the Colorado Independent Automobile Dealers Association (CIADA) and the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association (CADA).

On the ground and online, the coalition appears to be run by a handful of Colorado-based public affairs professionals, including the former director of the Colorado state chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), whose national group was founded and funded by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers.

Sean Paige fields press queries about Freedom to Drive from his personal public affairs firm called Affinity Advocacy. Paige spent three years as Deputy Director and Acting Director of Americans for Prosperity Colorado, the state chapter of Charles Koch’s national advocacy and political organizing group. Paige also spent nearly four years as Communications Director for the state Senate Republican majority and state Senate President Kevin Grantham, during which time he generated some measure of controversy by posting AFP materials from official Colorado Senate social media accounts.

According to research by the watchdog Energy and Policy Institute, Paige also worked with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a front group in the Koch network with clear Koch funding, to launch the website, which claims to “shine a light on the darker side of solar power.” Paige did not respond to DeSmog’s questions about the coalition or requests for comment, and the group’s Facebook administrators did not respond to similar requests through the social media platform. 

Besides Paige, Sara Almerri serves as the coalition’s public affairs director and published an op-ed on its behalf in the Colorado Sun arguing against adoption of the zero emission vehicle mandate.

Also involved in the coalition is Kelly Sloan, a political and public affairs consultant, who has “represented the Freedom to Drive Coalition” in front of the state legislature and who registered to lobby for the coalition on a bill involving greenhouse gas disclosures.

Sloan, who was also involved in AFP-Colorado as a Mesa County rep to the state chapter, was listed on the Freedom to Drive “Board and Staff Members” page as recently as June (the page has since been taken down). Last week, Sloan published an op-ed critiquing a judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the Colorado auto dealers against the state for adopting the low emission vehicle standards. However, Sloan didn’t disclose his work for Freedom to Drive in the op-ed.

Talking Points Purchased from Energy Ventures Analysis

Last week, Freedom to Drive released a new series of arguments against the zero emission vehicle mandate, which the state’s Air Quality Control Commission will vote on in August.

To support the arguments, the group also published an “economic impact analysis” conducted by Energy Ventures Analysis (EVA), an energy consultancy that is, in the words of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Starla Yeh, “widely recognized for their biased views and industry-influenced reports.” Indeed, Energy Ventures Analysis has a long track record of publishing “shoddy analysis” that is paid for by fossil fuel companies and used to attack regulations.

The consultancy admits in the executive summary that “EVA was prevented from performing a comprehensive economic impact analysis on the complex ZEV policy due to the accelerated adoption schedule mandated by the executive order.” They still delivered the desired talking points, however, including an outlandish projection based on faulty assumptions that mandating more sales of zero emission vehicles and enforcing stricter emissions standards would somehow increase greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollutants. 

This sort of “study-for-hire” is straight out of the Koch network playbook. Recently, it has played out on the national level with Koch-funded groups (or even Koch Industries subsidiaries) commissioning studies that claim that electric vehicles have no environmental benefit or overinflating the projected costs of electric vehicle tax incentives.

Freedom to Drive now brings that national disinformation model to Colorado, targetting the state’s efforts to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles and keep demand for gasoline — and gas guzzlers — high.  

Main image: Tesla Model X with ski tow hitch. Credit: Tesla, with permission.