Billionaire Democrat vows fight against Keystone by targeting Obama voters

WASHINGTON – A San Francisco billionaire — a friend to Barack Obama and a major Democratic financier — is embarking on a mission to block TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline by targeting voters who cast ballots for the president in last year’s election.

In an open letter to Obama, written by Tom Steyer just two months after hosting the president at his home, the climate-change activist says his political action committee, NextGen Action, is launching a campaign to “intensify our efforts in communicating what is the right policy choice to your administration.”

The campaign, kicking off June 20, “will specifically focus on communicating to those Americans across the country who supported your re-election in 2012,” Steyer adds.

Steyer said Friday’s announcement by the B.C. provincial government has “demolished” a critical argument held up by Keystone supporters, including the U.S. State Department, that Alberta’s oilsands will find a market with or without the pipeline.

B.C. has officially opposed Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oilsands bitumen to the Pacific coast for export to Asia. The province says the company’s pipeline proposal fails to address its environmental concerns.

That means that proceeding with Keystone XL would, in fact, directly result in higher greenhouse gas emissions by accelerating oilsands production, Steyer contended in his letter.

“That argument was always a flimsy rationalization, but it has now been completely undermined by the decision of British Columbia to oppose a route through that province,” he wrote.

“This decision shows that our Environmental Protection Agency was right all along: Transporting tarsands from Canada through the Keystone pipeline will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions,” he added, referring to the EPA’s criticism of the State Department’s most recent environmental thumb’s up.

The State Department is assessing the pipeline because it crosses an international border. It’s currently reviewing public comments on its environmental assessment, and then will make a determination about whether Keystone XL is in the national interest of the United States.

After that decision, it’s up to Obama to bless or block the pipeline.

Shaun Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, disputed Steyer’s insistence that the B.C. decision mutes a key pro-pipeline argument.

“The Keystone pipeline system has its own unique market — American refineries in the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast,” he said.

“The Northern Gateway project has a different market. And let’s not forget — a significant portion of the oil that Keystone XL will transport comes from American oil fields in Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. The two projects are not the same, despite Mr. Steyer’s desire to link them.”

Steyer, worth an estimated US$1.4 billion, is a former hedge fund manager who now devotes his time to climate change and NextGen Action.

He’s already specifically targeted Democratic lawmakers for their support of the pipeline, including Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat who sought to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat when the longtime senator was appointed secretary of state.

Lynch lost to Edward Markey.

Along with other wealthy liberals, including Warren Buffet and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the 55-year-old Steyer is viewed by the left as an antidote to the conservative Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch, the billionaires behind Koch Industries, throw their financial might behind a raft of free-market and conservative causes, and are supporters of Keystone XL.

In 2010, Steyer and his wife, philanthropist Kat Taylor, signed the “Giving Pledge” established by Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates — also Obama supporters — aimed at persuading wealthy people to devote the majority of their wealth to good causes.

Just last month, Steyer hosted Obama at his home for a $5,000-a-head fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The pair have reportedly had several discussions about Keystone XL as Steyer becomes an increasingly vocal pipeline opponent.

“It is a terrible investment in the wrong kind of energy,” Steyer said at a keynote address two weeks ago to Climate Solutions, an Oregon-based environmental non-profit.

“Approval of Keystone would basically be a statement of, ‘We don’t get it; we’re behind the times.’ And more particularly, only political pressure will pull our heads out of the oilsands …. Come what may, we’re going to have to launch strong campaigns against bad officials.”

Howard accused Steyer of ignoring the facts.

“This is not about energy versus the environment — it’s an issue of where America wants to get the oil it needs to heat and cool our homes, fuel our vehicles and power the businesses that drive our economy and way of life,” he said.

He also suggested Steyer should “look into the production of heavy oil in his own state of California, since that oil has a larger carbon footprint than oil from the Canadian oilsands.”