The billionaire fighting to stop Keystone XL

In the latest issue of the The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza tells the story of how Tom Steyer, "a fifty-six-year-old billionaire, former hedge-fund manager, and major donor to the Democratic Party" has thrown his clout and money behind the effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Lizza's piece is partly a profile of Steyer and his potential political ambitions, but it is a thorough telling of the recent history of the climate movement and how the Keystone pipeline became a test of President Obama's commitment to moving the US away from fossil fuels in order to slow global warming.

Tom Steyer, who will be launching a major bipartisan climate change campaign in October with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, first challenged President Obama on this issue at a private fundraiser he hosted in his San Francisco home.

Lizza explains how Obama responded:

To insure that the event left an impression on Obama, Steyer invited fifteen top donors to join him for an intimate conversation with the President before the reception for a hundred. Jim Steyer said, “Tom really hammered Obama on the pipeline.”

Obama listened politely to Steyer, his wife, Kat Taylor, and their guests, then told them that climate change was one of many big issues he intended to address before he left office. “He was extremely impressive in terms of understanding the issue,” Steyer told me. “But he was saying, ‘I need to put this in the context of a whole program that I’m trying to get to. This isn’t the only thing I care about.’ ” Taylor said, “We didn’t get the answers we wanted.”
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On the issue of climate change, he was far more pessimistic. He reminded his audience that many Americans don’t share the views or the culture of Steyer’s guests. “The politics of this are tough,” he 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.”

Lizza goes on to explain how people like Jim Hansen, Bill McKibben and groups like the Sierra Club and 350.org have rallied what was a faltering climate movement around stopping the Keystone pipeline.

Steyer’s top policy adviser on climate is Kate Gordon, who previously worked at the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank in Washington. After the summer of 2010, she said, the environmental movement, which had been unusually united in support of Obama’s climate bill, fractured. “Everything crashed and burned, and immediately all those groups retreated to their corners,” Gordon said. As Obama grappled with the Republican ascendancy in Congress, he dropped from his agenda any mention of climate change. Podesta, who is now an adviser to Steyer, said that Keystone filled the policy vacuum left by the President’s silence: “People were beginning to doubt the President’s commitment.” Keystone “became the test of the question: Are we going to do anything long term about climate change?, as he had promised in the 2008 election.”

Gordon told me that until recently she thought that Obama was likely to approve the pipeline and that it was not wise for the movement to stress the issue. “I thought that it would be putting all of our eggs in one basket,” she said. “And, to continue with the egg metaphor, if we lost it would be a major loss and we’d have a lot of egg on our face.” She did see the benefits of the campaign, however: “The goal is as much about organizing young people around a thing. But you have to have a thing. You can’t organize people around a tipping point on climate change.”

As I've written a number of times, Keystone XL is about more than just a pipeline. It is a symbol. Lizza does a good job of explaining this logic:

For many activists, the opposition to Keystone isn’t really about the pipeline; they admit that no single project will tip the balance on climate change. Rather, they want Obama to use Keystone as a symbolic opportunity to move America away from fossil fuels. On the night Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, he pledged to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil, once and for all.” In his second Inaugural Address, he said, “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” Speaking of Obama’s coming decision on Keystone, the former senior Administration official pointed out, “Rarely do you get an opportunity to so easily define who you are and what you think the future of this country should look like from an energy perspective.”

If you haven't followed the debate over Keystone XL for years and are wondering what all the controversy is about, Lizza's whole piece is definitely worth a read.

Tags: Barack Obama | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Causes | Global Warming Effects | Oil | Tar Sands

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