It was the height of summer and Pastor Farris Wilks was warning that if we didn’t all stop sinning, God was going to scorch the Earth and melt the polar ice caps.
“We’re going to reap what we have sown, and what we have sown has not been good,” Wilks explained in his self-assured Texas drawl. “Think of all the murder that has happened in this country… all the babies that have been murdered… sexual perversion of all kinds.”
Wilks told his congregation in the small Texas town of Rising Star that the spike in global temperatures could be related to these sinful excesses. Maybe, he said, us “getting a little scorched here” was a message from God, and there was little if anything we could do about it.
“We didn’t create the Earth, so how could we ever save the Earth, or save all the animals even on the Earth, or save the polar caps?” Wilks said that day in July 2013, according to a recording obtained by the watchdog group Right Wing Watch. Ultimately, the fate of the planet was up to God alone: “If he wants the polar caps to remain in place, then he will leave them there.”
Wilks was no ordinary pastor. Along with his brother Dan Wilks, he was one of the U.S.’ newest billionaires. And their fortune came from an industry directly related to the planetary changes Wilks described in his sermon: fracking for oil and gas.
The previous year he and Dan had sold their fracking company Frac Tech for $3.5 billion and each pocketed $1.4 billion. They now intended to use their new fossil fuel fortune to shift the moral values of the entire country—and the right-wing influencers they enlisted for the cause went on to become some of the world’s biggest purveyors of climate disinformation.
In 2013, the same year Farris gave his sermon on “polar caps,” the brothers decided to donate more than $6.5 million to Prager University, which doesn’t have a campus and isn’t actually an accredited university. Founded by conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager to fight against “liberal bias” in American classrooms, it packages right-wing ideology into viral videos aimed at young people. That model, aided by YouTube recommendation algorithms, has resulted in billions of views across their digital platforms.
“Their contribution essentially enabled PragerU to expand more rapidly,” Prager said of the Wilks brothers in an email to VICE News.
In 2015, not long after the donation to PragerU, Farris Wilks provided $4.77 million in seed funding to start the Daily Wire, a right-wing news website and media company co-founded by Ben Shapiro. Then an aspiring conservative influencer, Shapiro would go on to have a personal Facebook following of over 8.6 million followers.
The Wilkses didn’t just seed two of the most influential sites in right-wing media. They were also creating infrastructure capable of broadcasting messages denying or dismissing the climate emergency to millions of people. Outside experts now consider the Daily Wire and PragerU to be among the biggest and loudest sources of climate science misinformation on the planet.
A watchdog organization called the Center for Countering Digital Hate last year named the Daily Wire as one of America’s top 10 disseminators of climate skepticism on Facebook, a designation the Daily Wire’s executives dismiss.
“Never heard of them, but they don’t seem very fond of us, do they?” the site’s co-founder and co-CEO Jeremy Boreing told VICE News in an email.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s head of research, Callum Hood, called PragerU “amongst the most influential spreaders of climate disinformation on YouTube,” where it has nearly 3 million subscribers.
“We regard the view that global warming is ‘an existential threat’ to life on Earth as manipulative hysteria”
Prager disputes that characterization. “Virtually all views that differ with the left are smeared and dismissed as ‘misinformation,’” he said in his email to VICE News. “We affirm that the Earth is warming, but we regard the view that global warming is ‘an existential threat’ to life on Earth as manipulative hysteria.”
Likewise, Shapiro has made “debunking climate change hysteria” a top priority for the Daily Wire.
The ability of Wilks-funded outlets to reach a mass audience with messages downplaying the seriousness of climate change is financially convenient for the brothers, who now back an oilfield services company called ProFrac that this month reported a strong quarter with more than $70 million in net income. Multiple attempts to reach the famously elusive Wilks for an interview through the company were unsuccessful.
But unlike the better-known fossil fuel billionaires the Koch brothers, who have used their vast oil, gas, coal, and chemical fortune to fund studies and campaigns undermining the political will for laws restricting greenhouse gas emissions, the Wilks brothers don’t necessarily view right-wing politics as an extension of their business empire, argues Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
“Their political action is not driven by economic self-interest,” he told VICE News. “It’s driven by their faith.”
Funding a climate-denying empire
When the Wilks brothers started donating to PragerU, it had nowhere near the reach or influence it has now.
The organization’s CEO, Marissa Streit, later explained that in the early period after her hiring in 2011, she was “a general without an army,” telling a documentary team with the Daily Wire, “I had no employees. We were working out of my kitchen and we were just sitting there figuring out, how do you get this ‘penicillin for the mind’ that Dennis has to the masses?”
Then, in 2013, foundations run by the Wilks and their wives donated $300,000. The independent media outlet Rewire News Group later reported that money “from the Wilks in 2013 accounted for a quarter of the public support received by the Prager University Foundation, with its total revenue for the year at $1,198,251.”
What did the Wilks see in PragerU? “Needless to say, only the Wilks can answer that question,” Prager told VICE News before stating, “I presume they saw in PragerU an innovative and sophisticated presentation of the case for American values.”
Early on, PragerU focused on religious themes. “The ultimate statement of counterculture and individual strength in America today is to take the God of Judaism and Christianity seriously,” it explained in one of its online courses. PragerU was also heavily interested in the environment. It launched a fundraiser around this time for a five-part video series “investigating the truth behind climate change hysteria.”
Tax forms from 2013 showed that Farris Wilks’ Thirteen Foundation “approved for future payment” an additional $6.25 million to PragerU. “Most of the seed money for PragerU came from Dan and Farris Wilks,” the Los Angeles Times later reported.
Prager disputes as “not quite accurate” that portrayal and also the dollar amounts. “PragerU was well-established prior to the Wilks’ contribution of about a million dollars a year for four years,” he told VICE News. “Nor does it in any way diminish their help or our gratitude to further note that the Wilks’ contribution amounts to about 3 percent of the money PragerU has raised.”
As the organization grew, it produced more content disputing the climate emergency. A 2015 video from PragerU with more than 6.1 million views claims that “since time immemorial, our climate has been and will always be changing,” disputing the scientific consensus that it is “a recent human-caused disaster.” By 2018, the site had created more than a dozen such videos, including one entitled “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy.”
Prager said that PragerU’s climate content is in no way influenced by the Wilks’ personal views or financial interests in fracking.
“I have to answer to God, not donors”
“I would never allow myself or PragerU to do the bidding of people with money,” he explained. “I have to answer to God, not donors, for the positions I take… All the money given to us is because of positions we have already taken.”
He added, “The last time we received any money from the Wilks was more than three years ago.”
By then, PragerU was no longer a scrappy organization “without an army.” It was a major right-wing content producer with 1.7 billion video views on Facebook and YouTube. Last year, PragerU said it reached 5 billion views “across its digital platforms.”
The Wilks have come a long way since the humble beginnings of their childhood. They reportedly grew up in the 1950s in a family of seven living in a former goat shed. Their father, Voy Wilks, was a professional mason who dreamed of one day building a better home for his children. Eventually, he also created a church.
In 1982, Voy Wilks and a small congregation of fellow believers founded the Assembly of Yahweh in a small, plain-brick structure near Cisco, Texas, a two-hour drive west of Dallas. Not long after, he appointed Farris, who was then in his 30s, as bishop and pastor.
The Assembly of Yahweh isn’t a typical church. It combines elements of Christianity and Judaism into a hybrid faith. Church members refer to God as the Hebrew-derived “Yahweh,” refrain from eating pork and shellfish, reject the holidays of Christmas and Halloween, and celebrate Passover.
“There are a lot of evangelical churches that adopt certain Jewish rituals and practices, but this one takes it a bit further than most,” Jay Michaelson, a journalist and author focused on religious issues who is also an affiliated assistant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, told VICE News.
They also believe “that the Bible, as originally given, was true and correct in every scientific and historical detail,” according to a list of Doctrinal Points published by the church in 2015.
Members are instructed that “willful abortion is a serious crime. It is murder. This includes pregnancies resulting from rape and incest.” The same goes for homosexuality, which is “a very grievous sin.” The church believes that “women should keep silence in the assemblies” because they are “subordinate” to men. That “is a command of Yahweh.” The church didn’t respond to multiple media requests from VICE News.
As Dan and Farris Wilks grew older obeying those strict commands, they split their religious duties with careers as masons. In the early 2000s, they shifted into oil and gas. They could see a fracking industry taking shape in Texas and they founded the oilfield services firm Frac Tech to take advantage of it.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. As new technology made massive but difficult-to-tap reserves of oil and gas suddenly accessible for drilling, the fracking industry exploded, producing 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 59 million barrels of oil in North Texas alone between 2003 and 2015.
Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio calculated that in 2011 fracking generated $25 billion in economic output across South Texas, leading the team to deem it “a modern-day gold rush.” If you were early to fracking, you could get rich beyond belief, which is what happened to the Wilks when in 2012 they sold Frac Tech to a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund.
The sale landed them on the Forbes 400 list, which described them as the “newest undercover billionaires.” One of the first things the brothers did with their fortune was buy a 200,000-acre ranch in Montana for a reported $45 million. They also began writing huge checks for causes aligned with their religious beliefs.
The Thirteen Foundation, a nonprofit currently chaired by Farris and his wife, JoAnn, spent more than $12.8 million in 2012, according to tax forms viewed by the climate disinformation watchdog site DeSmog. Heavenly Fathers Foundation, which is run by Dan and his wife, Staci, that year spent $4.3 million. They’ve supported groups such as Life Dynamic Inc., an anti-abortion activist organization, and Focus on the Family, one of the most prominent social conservative evangelical groups in the country, which has been accused of promoting conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.
The Wilks brothers’ fracking fortune was allowing them to take the extreme religious beliefs they’d developed in West Texas to a national audience. “They see their wealth as a sign of God’s favor,” Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with the watchdog organization Right Wing Watch, told VICE News.
PragerU helps spawn the Daily Wire
As money from the Wilks fueled PragerU’s rapid expansion, another opportunity to invest in right-wing media caught the brothers’ attention.
During the early days of PragerU, the organization had hired Boreing as a consultant, an obscure Hollywood producer and aspiring conservative activist. Boreing reportedly came up with the blue and orange stick-figure animations that became PragerU’s signature style.
Around this time, a Vanity Fair profile explains, Boreing was introduced to Shapiro. The two quickly became friends. They began developing the idea of building a profit-generating business exposing conservative opinion to a mass audience on digital media, with Shapiro as the star.
Early potential funders were not convinced it would work, but Boreing and Shapiro apparently found an enthusiastic backer in the billionaire fracking pastor from Texas. “Ben and I were introduced to Caleb Robinson by Allen Estrin, co-founder of Prager U. Caleb worked for Farris at the time and introduced us to him,” Boreing told VICE News.
The three of them—Shapiro, Boreing, and Robinson—“launched the Daily Wire in 2015 with an initial investment of $4.7M by Farris Wilks,” the outlet’s website explains.
According to Vanity Fair, early video episodes of the Daily Wire were shot “in Boreing’s pool house, before moving to an ad hoc studio on the same floor as PragerU, with sets Boreing and his brother built by hand.”
The Daily Wire would later publicly downplay its connection to the Wilks. “As of July 2020, neither Shapiro nor Boreing have ever met Dan Wilks or received any money from Wilks Brothers, LLC, which doesn’t stop the site’s detractors from braying about how the company is ‘bought and paid for by the evil fracking Wilks Brothers!’—‘Wilks Brothers’ sounding, we guess, like Koch Brothers and thus more nefarious to leftist media outlets. Or something,” reads an About Us section that was recently removed from the website.
“I forgot about that,” Boreing told VICE News when asked about the removal. “Funny paragraph, and true. We updated the ‘About’ page when we launched DailyWire+,” the site’s new streaming platform.
But to this day Farris Wilks is one of the outlet’s co-owners. Like PragerU, it combines culture war content about abortion, race, gender, religion, and many other social conservative flashpoints with aggressive denials of the climate crisis.
As then–President Barack Obama headed to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, Shapiro authored a story in the Daily Wire claiming the conference’s goal was “to destroy civilization’s upward mobility by restricting its use of natural resources based on shoddy science.” He was still at it three years later, writing in response to an alarming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that “environmentalist doomsayers” were “trying to frighten Americans into radically altering the American economy, supposedly to save the earth.”
Boreing disputed the idea that Wilks exerts any editorial control over the Daily Wire or that its climate coverage is any way related to the billionaire’s fracking interests, answering VICE News’ questions about that with a single word: “No.”
By late 2021, the Daily Wire was getting nearly 21 million visits a month on Facebook. This made it the most popular publisher on Facebook, with more engagement for its articles “than the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, and CNN combined,” notes the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
A key reason for that success is Shapiro himself, whose gigantic social following allows him to drive engagement to Daily Wire articles, such as a series he ran called “The Debunked Collection,” which attacks “common Leftist fallacies.” In Part Two of the series, Shapiro wrote, “You’ve heard that climate change is going to put an end to all life on Earth; that it puts civilization in existential peril… These are lies.”
This is a textbook example of how Shapiro, aided by platforms like Google and Facebook while at the same time accusing those platforms of censorship, spreads doubt and uncertainty, according to Hood from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“One of the key elements of Shapiro’s performance in the media is debunking what he views as liberal lies or myths,” Hood said. “It’s a very engaging framing. It’s a very controversial framing. It’s something you could imagine causing all sorts of arguments on social media platforms, which only helps propel that content to a wider audience.”
Not quite the Kochs
The involvement of the Wilks brothers in right-wing media and political causes—especially given their fossil fuel background—has led people to make comparisons to another famous pair of conservative billionaires. Several years ago, the San Antonio Express News described the Wilks as the “Koch brothers of the Christian right.”
There are certainly some parallels. Farris Wilks is a donor to the State Policy Network, an anti-regulation advocacy network closely linked to the Kochs. And the Wilks brothers have on occasion appeared to use their fortune to further their own business interests. In 2014, they and their wives personally donated more than $300,000 to Texas state legislators, and the following year the state passed a bill preventing local communities from instituting fracking bans. “Every single legislator who received money from the Wilks in 2014 voted ‘yes’ for the bill,” Rewire News Group reported.
But there are limits to the comparison. Charles Koch, as well as his late brother David, is a fiscal libertarian who has spent his political life trying to dismantle government institutions and block profit-harming regulations on his company, Koch Industries. The Wilks, meanwhile, are social conservatives whose religious identity formed long before they became billionaires.
“They really are their own beast,” Ian Stephens, a progressive political activist based in Texas, said on an episode of his YouTube show The Lucretia Report. “At their core they aren’t much more than small-town preachers at a Texas church who got lucky and jumped into the Forbes 400.”
Still, Stephens told VICE News, the millions of dollars the Wilks have spent promoting religious-right causes—especially their investments in PragerU and the Daily Wire—may have in some ways benefited them financially. “Those outlets have reached millions of people and done indirect lobbying through influencing the opinion of constituents,” he claimed.
Nearly 50 percent of Americans don’t believe humans cause climate change, a VICE News/Guardian poll found last fall. That’s due in part to the torrent of disinformation blasted at people by outlets like the Daily Wire, which “obfuscates the truth by overwhelming us with claims and questions designed in bad faith to confuse the debate so action is delayed,” the Center for Countering Digital Hate argues.
Meanwhile, companies linked to the Wilks brothers continue to cash in on the industry primarily responsible for causing the climate crisis. This June, just weeks after raising nearly $300 million for ProFrac, shares were “powered to a fresh high” after investors on “Wall Street gave the fracking services company a unanimously bullish endorsement,” MarketWatch reported.
The company, argued an analyst with Morgan Stanley, was “poised for multiple expansion.”
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ian Stephens.