YORK, Neb. — California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer has been a strong financial supporter of President Barack Obama, but a stronger foe of the Keystone XL pipeline.
After pumping up pipeline opponents Sunday at a farm north of York, Steyer shrugged when asked which way Obama is leaning on the controversial crude oil pipeline that would run through Nebraska.
Steyer, who was host to the president at a $5,000-per-person fundraising reception at his San Francisco home in the spring, said his connections simply haven’t provided clarity on that question.
“This is so obvious that it fails the president’s test that it’s inconceivable to me that he would approve it,” Steyer said. “But I have no insight beyond reading what’s in the paper.”
Steyer has made national headlines of his own since stepping down a year ago from his successful investment company and pouring a fortune into a campaign to defeat the Keystone XL. Most recently he spent a reported $1 million on anti-pipeline commercials airing between Sunday morning news talk programs.
Steyer repeated a major theme from the ads as he spoke Sunday: The heavy crude oil that would be piped from western Canada to Gulf Coast refineries could push global climate change past a tipping point.
TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build the pipeline, has said such claims aren’t supported by the U.S. State Department’s preliminary assessment of the Keystone XL. The analysis has indicated the project’s contribution to climate change would not be significant.
The department, which can recommend approval if it determines that the project is in the national interest, is expected to release a final analysis before year’s end. A decision by the president could stretch into next year.
Steyer flew to Nebraska at the invitation of Bold Nebraska, which started perhaps the earliest organized campaign against the Keystone XL. He participated in the dedication of a “clean energy” barn erected in the path of the pipeline over the past week by volunteers and contractors.
Sitting on a flat piece of soil that grows corn and soybeans, the barn features eight solar panels and a small wind turbine. The roughly $65,000 project was paid for with contributions from more than 1,000 donors, said Bold Nebraska director Jane Kleeb.
“This is about the best example I’ve ever seen of people being the change they want to see in the world,” Steyer told a crowd that had gathered on a gusty, sunny afternoon made to order for the occasion.
The 600-square-foot barn is connected to an electrical transformer, meaning it can send surplus power to the grid. Although it is equipped with batteries to store modest amounts of power, it will draw electricity from the grid after a couple of days of cloudy, still conditions.
Critics of renewable energy point to its shortcomings. But Steyer, who spent 30 years investing in companies, said he’s convinced American ingenuity can overcome such challenges. And he’s convinced green energy can produce jobs and other economic benefits.
As an investor, Steyer, 56, made money off of the same fossil fuel and pipeline industries he now is campaigning against. He didn’t apologize for that Sunday.
But he also denied accusations he’s trying to cash in on renewable energy now. Steyer said he’s trying to convince policymakers, politicians and the American people that the planet depends on shifting away from oil and coal.
He said it is the future of his four children that motivated him to visit a Nebraska cornfield on a September afternoon.
“My wife and I decided it would be more important than anything else to be able to look our kids in the eye and say that we were pushing as hard as we could on what we thought was the generational challenge of Americans to do the right thing.”