Out of context, the hydrocarbon-hating RMI getting a minimum of $1.5 million in recent years from a big oil company is a weird look. (Report them to Sheldon Whitehouse!) But the image is clearer when viewed with knowledge of RMI’s close links to the Vision Ridge Partners investment firm.
Vision Ridge partner Jules Kortenhorst, a one-time executive at Shell, became CEO of RMI in 2013. Kortenhorst helmed the Rocky Mountain Institute until at least 2021. During his leadership, RMI experienced explosive growth. The nonprofit reported $18.8 million in total revenue for the year ending June 2014, following Kortenhorst’s arrival. For the tax filing year ending June 2021, the last with Kortenhorst named as CEO, RMI reported total revenue of $115.1 million.
The managing partner and chief investment officer at Vision Ridge—the man presumably in charge—is Reuben Munger. His financial ties to the Rocky Mountain Institute are far deeper than even Kortenhorst’s.
RMI annual reports from 2008 through 2020 list Munger as a board member. He is thanked for donations of $1 million “and above” in annual reports for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. More modest six-figure gifts are credited to him in 2020 and 2021, but it is also true that RMI annual reports expanded the number of “anonymous” donors in the $1 million-plus category from zero in 2019 to four in 2022.
Like most policy nonprofits, even RMI likes to keep donors secret.
Munger was also listed as a member of the board of the League of Conservation Voters as far back as the tax filing for the year ending December 2013 and remains there as of December 2021, the end date of the most recent filing. His apparently multi-million-dollar commitment to RMI makes it reasonable to guess that Munger has been similarly generous to—and influential within—the LCV.
George Polk, another of Munger’s partners at Vision Ridge, is a former climate change advisor to left-wing billionaire benefactor George Soros. Polk joined the RMI board in 2014 or 2015 and as of this writing is still there.
In January 2023, Vision Ridge Partners announced a $700 million boost toward capitalization of a new $1.25 billion fund for “sustainable” investments. Like Al Gore, Munger made it clear that he expected his firm to cash in on the IRA pork. “The Inflation Reduction Act has really expanded the opportunity set with the U.S., so that’s really good for our existing portfolio,” said Munger.
More than a decade earlier, Munger got the hiccups while trying to hoover up a far smaller serving of federal subsidies. That too involved the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Remember the Stimulus
While the IRA is by far the largest gusher of climate alarmist corporate welfare in American history, it isn’t the first. The previous record holder was the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (commonly known as the “Stimulus”). The Solyndra solar energy firm was the very first and most infamous recipient of $535 million from this program. By 2011, Solyndra was bankrupt, and at least $500 million of the loan was lost with it.
By November 2014, the taxpayer-funded loan program had written off $780 million in losses against $810 million in loan repayments from bets that didn’t go bad.
In February 2016, their final year on the job, the Obama administration declared the Stimulus climate pork a success, crediting it with increasing electric vehicle options and “transforming our energy system” with “the largest single investment in clean energy in history, providing more than $90 billion in strategic clean energy investments and tax incentives.”
Yup, it was so effective that eight years later we need to spend 10 times more to do it all over again!
Munger also wanted some of that Stimulus loot. But the Obamacrats, who couldn’t wait to shovel $535 million out the door (and into a furnace) for Solyndra, were not as eager to write Reuben a check.
The story began in 2008, when Bright Automotive was born. Munger became its CEO. The fledgling carmaker had been incubated within the Rocky Mountain Institute and then spun off to the private sector. According to a February 2009 report, Bright aimed to commercially produce hybrid-electric vehicles with a 100-miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency by the end of 2012.
Munger and Bright executives had apparently bet on getting Stimulus money as critical to their business model. In February 2012, after three years of failing secure a $314 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under its Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program, Bright executives withdrew the application and announced Bright was exiting the car business.
“The ineffectiveness of the DOE to execute its program harms commercial enterprise as it not only interfered with the capital markets; it placed American companies at the whim of approval by a group of bureaucrats,” huffed Munger and other Bright executives, in their letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
That was probably a tiny bit unfair, because it’s not as if Chu’s bureaucrats were reluctant to gamble taxpayer treasure on the car business.
In September 2009 they approved a $528 million ATVM Stimulus loan to electric carmaker Fisker. The firm went bankrupt by November 2013. But unlike with Solyndra, most of the loan hadn’t yet been used, so federal losses were limited to a mere $139 million. (At some point, maybe the nine-figure setbacks start to look like real money?)
Fisker executives blamed their problems on the October 2012 bankruptcy of their electric vehicle battery maker, A123 Systems. Showing its Midas touch yet again, Team Chu had also made a $249 million loan to A123 to make the batteries at plants in Michigan, and it even shipped a nearly $1 million installment out to A123 on the day of the firm’s bankruptcy filing. And if all those ironies weren’t funny enough, in 2009 the then-Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm praised the loan and A123’s arrival as “a major step to making Michigan the state that helps reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.”
The remains of A123 were later sold to a Chinese firm. Granholm now has Chu’s old job running the U.S. Department of Energy and is thus in charge of handing out some of the IRA’s allegedly “green” corporate welfare pork.
In the next installment, the “clean tech” boom goes bust.