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Close your eyes and imagine a heaping mound of white ammonium nitrate powder.
On one side of the mound are the Koch brothers. And on the other side are Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and New York City bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami.
When McVeigh and Rahami see the mound, they think of a really cheap and easy way to blow things up: Ammonium nitrate was the key ingredient in both of their infamous bombs. Ammonium nitrate was also easily and legally obtained by both them. In fact, with online shopping it was actually probably easier for Rahami to get his hands the stuff than it was for McVeigh.
When the Koch brothers look at the ammonium nitrate, they hear a cash register go ka-ching and see a pile of cash. That’s because the primary product of the fracking boom (which the Kochs are also behind) is cheap natural gas. Ammonium Nitrate is made in a relatively simple process stemming from burning a natural gas and steam mixture and then running an electric current through the remains.
Cheap natural gas = cheap production of nitrogen-based fertilizer . . . especially when you own the natural gas.
The Kochs and other members of the fertilizer industry—described by the American Antitrust Institute as an "oligopoly"—then sell this cheap product at a huge, consistently high markup to farmers. Fertilizer sales, at $175 billion a year, account for the largest single segment of the agribusiness sector in the United States.
In addition, ammonium nitrate is also the most commonly used explosive in the mining industry, which the Kochs are deeply invested in as well.
And that’s why the Kochs have worked hard to keep these potentially deadly materials available to people including Tim McVeigh and Ahmad Khan Rahami.
In 2007, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed, the Secure Handling of Ammonium Nitrate Act. According to testimony from Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary Suzanne Spaulding:
“The authorizing statute provides the Department with the authority to require individuals engaging in the purchase, sale, or transfer of ammonium nitrate to register with the Department and submit to vetting against the Terrorist Screening Database, and requires facilities transferring or selling ammonium nitrate to maintain records on such sales and transfers and report any identified thefts or losses of ammonium nitrate to appropriate authorities."
That sounds like the Act represents a serious regulatory clamp-down on ammonium nitrate at all levels. Unfortunately, though, while the Department of Homeland Security has been authorized to implement rules on the sale, storage, and transfer of ammonium nitrate, not a single rule has been handed down in the nearly ten years since this bill was passed.
In 2011, the department came out with proposed rules, but pushback from the fertilizer and mining industries has caused the law’s goal of regulating ammonium nitrate to be trapped in a seemingly never-ending bureaucratic purgatory.
Similarly, in 2014, when Texas tried to take action following the 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled the tiny town of West, Texas, the Kochs poured money into the state to stop it. The money seemed to have a hypnotic effect on then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's pro-Koch actions, causing the Dallas Morning News to editorialize:
“The fact that Abbott has taken thousands of dollars from political donors related to Koch Industries, a multinational corporation with extensive chemical interests, creates particularly noxious ‘optics’ for the Republican attorney general in his campaign for governor."
While the lion's share of the blame for the federal inaction should lay at the feet of President Obama, Congress has also failed in its duty to provide oversight and ensure that the legislation it passes is enacted.
Perhaps no entity is better positioned to prompt action than the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin. But Johnson hasn’t held a single hearing on the issue or even mentioned it his many interviews criticizing President Obama's handling of terrorist threats.
He has, however, created something called “Victims of Government,” where he chronicles how businesses and citizens are hurt by government, because, after all, “the root cause of our economic and fiscal problems is the size, the scope, and the cost of government—all the rules, all the regulations, and all the government intrusion into our lives."
Johnson has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers in the form of so-called issue advocacy ads that have been flooding Wisconsin airwaves, supporting his desperate bid to keep his Senate seat.
While Congress authorized the Department of Homeland Security to implement rules, it’s unclear where the money for a new regulatory system would come from in the current austerity environment is which the Department of Homeland Security is already begging for every penny.
The most recent bombing was yet another reminder that twenty-one years after the horrific Oklahoma City bombing and nearly ten years after Congress finally enacted legislation in response to it, we still do not have any federal regulations standing between terrorists and easy access to ammonium nitrate.
As Senator Tom Harkin used to say, "When deep pockets want something, it's amazing how quick Washington can move." The same is true when deep pockets don't want something.
Jud Lounsbury is a political writer based in Madison, Wisconsin and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.