The billionaire investor turned climate activist who has mounted a self-funded push to defeat the Keystone XL pipeline is tracking proposed hydraulic fracturing limits in his home state of California and is not ruling out entering the debate, which has opened a rift between Democrats and environmentalists.
In an exclusive interview yesterday with E&E Daily, Tom Steyer -- set to join outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on a new climate change campaign next month -- struck a self-deprecating note when asked if he would weigh in on regulations for oil companies eager to tap California's vast Monterey Shale play. Steyer, who built a $20 billion hedge fund from the ground up, compared himself to "a garbage person" who steps in to do the jobs few others would.
"It's a necessary function, but not one everybody chooses," Steyer said. "And so, in terms of fracking in California, we're going to watch it for a while and see if there's something not being said that needs to be said. With that approach, we can generally believe it's not about us, but it's about the issue, and respond to what's really going on."
Some activists who align with Steyer against KXL are urging California state legislators to reject a bill that would impose the state's first curbs on fracturing and similar acid-based production methods. They are calling the measure too watered down and are pressing for an outright moratorium on the shale oil extraction practice (Greenwire, Aug. 29). The same California lawmaker sponsoring the fracturing bill, which would come to a pivotal vote as soon as today, crafted the statewide emissions-reduction plan that Steyer spent $5 million to protect from a failed 2010 ballot initiative known as Proposition 23.
Steyer is literally becoming a household name this fall, appearing in TV ads as part of his splashy bid to topple the $5.3 billion pipeline that would give the Canadian oil sands a valuable conduit to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. But KXL is only one salvo in the battle Steyer is trying to wage to, as he put it, "change the way energy is produced and used in the United States."
After turning the pipeline into a top-tier issue in the Massachusetts Senate race won by Democrat Ed Markey three months ago, Steyer moved on to backing TV ads taking aim at the Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee widely known for his disbelief in human-caused climate change, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (Greenwire, Sept. 5). The 56-year-old Democratic donor is now looking at the next race or races he hopes to enter through NextGen Climate Action, his "super" political action committee formed to accept unlimited contributions.
"We're going to spend a lot of time" this fall choosing targets for the upcoming election cycle, Steyer said. "We've thought about it, but there's a bunch of different strategic options, and we're going to have to be smart about 2014."
Two options often linked with Steyer as his profile rises in the capital are seeking an elected office in California, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) would be 85 at the time of her next re-election campaign in 2018, and playing a bigger role in the network of environmental groups that have made KXL into an organizational rebound from the nadir of their unsuccessful fight for a cap-and-trade climate bill in 2009 and 2010.
Asked about his political future, Steyer responded critically but without a Shermanesque dismissal that would rule out a run of his own.
"They just don't have anybody else to speculate about," he said of those who mention him as a future candidate. "I can't really imagine myself doing that job, can you?"
The New Yorker magazine first reported yesterday that Steyer will soon be working alongside Bloomberg, his self-professed role model in his efforts to create political consequences for opposing climate action -- also an unlikely Wall Street-bred candidate when he ran for office in 2001. Asked for more details on the partnership with Bloomberg and Paulson, Steyer demurred with more self-deprecation, calling himself "certainly the least distinguished" of the trio and declining to "run out ahead of anybody else."
If Steyer does follow Bloomberg to the campaign trail, he described his ultimate goal as nothing less than the holy grail of the green community. Following an anecdotal template popular in political speeches, the father of four relayed the question a companion asked after their weekend summit of California's 14,000-foot Mount Tyndall: What would it take for him to climb the mountain again?
When offered a chance at "comprehensive climate legislation with the Chinese," Steyer said he responded, "OK, I'll do it barefoot."
Accomplishing that goal is bound to involve close work alongside the pantheon of environmental nonprofits that maintain a presence in Washington, D.C., from old-line players like the League of Conservation Voters to the younger, new-school groups led by 350.org. Steyer has walked in step with many in both camps from time to time but expressed no interest in remaking other nonprofits to fit the template of political savvy and grass-roots energy that he is working to create.
"There are a bunch of people who are incredibly knowledgeable about what goes on inside the Beltway, some of whom I admire a lot and respect a lot," Steyer said. "I'm not one of those people."
Still, some of his closest advisers have considerable Beltway experience, from former Center for American Progress Vice President Kate Gordon to ex-Clinton administration strategist Chris Lehane. "We believe that coalition is an enormous part of this, that the so-called environmental coalition has been far too small and far too narrow," Steyer said.
"I wouldn't for a second want to change people, but I certainly want to partner with them, and I certainly want them to help us," he said.