Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer was in Little Rock and Mayflower on Tuesday for meetings on the Mayflower oil spill.
Last year, Steyer — whose net worth has been estimated at $1.4 billion by Forbes — stepped down from running a San Francisco-based hedge fund he founded to focus on politics, especially environmental issues. A longtime major donor to the Democratic Party, he’s now positioning himself as an outside funder in the same order of the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, but for green-oriented Democrats. According to Politico, he spent $8 million to help Terry McAuliffe defeat Tea Party favorite Ken Cuccinelli in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election — more, on a per-vote basis, than Adelson spent in the last presidential election.
Now, through his environment-focused super PAC NextGen Climate Action, Steyer has his sights set on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. In September, he launched a four-part TV advertising campaign, dubbed “Bringing Down TransCanada’s House of Cards: The Keystone Chronicles,” which included a spot that featured Steyer speaking from Mayflower. Jim Margolis, the man behind many of Obama’s presidential campaign ads, produced the campaign.
On Monday at Georgetown University, Steyer convened a conference of academics and private-sector experts to discuss whether approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline would meet President Obama’s condition that it not accelerate climate change. Unsurprisingly, the gathered said it did not.
In April, Steyer hosted a fundraiser for Obama, where he pressed the president to reject the Keystone proposal. In a long September profile of Steyer, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza captured the president’s reaction.
“The politics of this are tough,” [Obama] said. “Because if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade; if your house is still twenty-five thousand, thirty thousand dollars under water; if you’re just happy that you’ve still got that factory job that is powered by cheap energy; if every time you go to fill up your old car because you can’t afford to buy a new one, and you certainly can’t afford to buy a Prius, you’re spending forty bucks that you don’t have, which means that you may not be able to save for retirement.” He added, “You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern.” To some in the room, it seemed that the President was speaking for himself. He never mentioned Keystone. “The clear takeaway for Tom was that the President issued us a challenge,” one of Steyer’s political aides said. “Go out there and make the public-policy case as to why this pipeline is not in our country’s best interest.”
“On the criteria he laid out it’s very straightforward,” Steyer said in a meeting with the Arkansas Times on Tuesday, after he was asked to predict whether the president will approve the pipeline or not. “Whether those are the only criteria that come forward, I’m sure I don’t know.”
Steyer said he was returning to Mayflower, where he’d twice visited, to help those who were affected by the spill have “a voice.”
He’d read “The forgotten in Mayflower,” our cover story on those people who live outside the Northwoods subdivision, where the pipeline ruptured, but near enough to the pipeline or the path the leaking oil flowed, to get a dose of aerosolized toxins.
“It reads like a bunch of fairly powerless people, who don’t have great access to media, who don’t have great access to lawyers… kind of got the short end of the stick. There’s a message in there somewhere. At least it’s a story that more Americans should know about.”
The debate over Keystone and climate change is often too impersonal, he said. Mayflower offers an opportunity to present the issue on a more “human level.”
Steyer said he views climate change as the signal issue of our time.
“We think that if you went forward 50 or 100 years and look back that this will be what people care about. … The way history works is, ‘Well, it seems like the Axis powers might be pretty bad. What do you think?’ But by 1945, no one is asking that question anymore. They might be asking it in 1936, but in 1945, it’s a 100 percent probability. Anyone who didn’t come out on the right side in 1936 looks like an idiot.
“In this case, the question is, are the scientists going to turn out to be right, in which case we’re going to look back and ask, ‘Did we do everything we could to do the right thing to protect the next generation?’ ”
(In anticipation of a standard comment every time we report anything on pipelines, Steyer is against the Keystone XL, but isn’t pushing for the end of transporting oil by pipeline. “We do need pipelines in the United States, and we have thousands of them, but they need to work, there need to be rules,” he said.)
Other media have reported that Steyer is interested in running for office in California. Asked when he was going to run for governor, he gave a quick non-denial denial.
“I have no idea. I’d personally be happy if we had good policies on energy and climate.”
To that end, he’s looking to fund more election contests between green candidates and climate deniers. He believes we’ve reached a tipping point with public opinion on climate change.
“I think we have come to this place, politically, certainly in contested races, where being a climate denier is an absolute loser.”
What about supporting embattled Mark Pryor, who’s environmental record isn’t exactly progressive, but who’s also facing someone who’s pretty much retrograde on everything, including the environment? Steyer said his organization hadn’t yet decided what they’re doing for next year’s cycle. But, generally, he’s looking for races where there’s a clear discrepancy between candidates on the environment.