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The enviros' new money man

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Cally Carswell | Mar 20, 2013 05:00 AM

On Monday, Congressman Steve Lynch, a Democrat seeking his party's support to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by our new Secretary of State, John Kerry, received a menacing letter. "Because climate change is such a serious issue," it read, "we are asking you, Congressman Lynch, today to do one of two things by high noon on Friday, March 22. Either act like a real Democrat and oppose (the Keystone XL pipeline's) dirty energy. Or, get a sworn, binding statement – with securities law enforcement – from TransCanada and the refiners that all of the Keystone-shipped oil will stay here." (Keystone XL opponents believe that most of the Canadian tar sands crude that the pipeline will transport to Gulf Coast refineries will be destined for overseas markets, doing little to wean the U.S. off Middle East oil, one of the main arguments in favor of the pipeline.)

If Lynch declined? "We will then immediately launch an aggressive public education campaign, including: investigative reports about your record, public events targeting interested Democratic voters, a college-based get-out-the-vote effort, community-to-community activity in cities and towns with the worst childhood asthma rates, and a robust social media effort to help voters understand that their climate interest is on the ballot."

Tom Steyer
Tom Steyer, speaking at Fortune Magazine event about getting Americans to think green in 2012.
The letter was signed by three Massachusetts college students, a Harvard law grad and director of a local climate activist group, and someone you wouldn't expect to be wading into the Massachusetts Senate race in such bold fashion: Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund tycoon.

Should Lynch stand his ground, which it appears he will, Steyer is promising to bankroll a Super PAC to ensure his defeat in the Democratic primary by Ed Markey, a Massachusetts congressman who is a Keystone XL opponent and generally the apple of environmentalists' eyes.

Steyer has long been a "rainmaker" in California politics. He was the main money-man behind a 2012 ballot measure to close a tax loophole for out-of-state corporations. (Cleverly, the self-described energy-obsessed Steyer designed the measure so the new revenue will go partly to energy-efficiency programs.) He also put up a lot of cash to defeat the effort to knock down California's pioneering global warming law, AB 32, and has given some $65 million to Stanford and Yale to fund clean energy programs.

This is Steyer's first major foray into national politics, but likely not his last. He stepped away from active duty at his hedge fund last fall to devote more time to philanthropy and activism -- and on that front, climate change is at the top of his priority list. Steyer's spokesman told the Globe and Mail that he sees Keystone XL as "the defining issue in the climate change fight of our times." And, on a tactical level, the spokesman told The Hill: "He plays to win. Obviously since the evil empire, i.e. Big Oil, is on the other side, he's willing to invest." Which is another way of saying Steyer will spend very freely to punish Lynch for his favorable view of the pipeline.

Steyer joins a growing list of politically minded Western high-rollers who have shelled out huge sums to Super PACs in hopes of influencing the outcomes of post-Citizens United elections. Last fall, such expenditures likely helped legalize gay marriage in Washington and pot in Colorado.

Steyer also appears to have grander plans to change the political conversation about environmental regulation in swing states, taking cues from the civil rights movement, the successful campaign to uphold AB 32, and even the strategy of opponents of federal climate legislation to go state-by-state stoking fears that new regulations would be inevitable job killers.

Which prompted the New York Times' Green Blog to ask: "Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?"

Though environmentalists have certainly begun to play the dark money game, the climate movement has, to this point, not had a real answer to the Koch brothers where money and political strategy are concerned. Steyer, a very rich, ambitious individual who seems to possess equally strong convictions on the opposite end of the political spectrum, may be it.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News.

Photo: Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Flickr user Fortune Live Media.

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