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Wealthy Donors in His Corner as Obama Comes Out Swinging on Climate Change

Obama's biggest supporters are busy helping him pursue his climate agenda. One billionaire is creating pressure and space for him to reject Keystone.

Jul 10, 2013
Ted Steyer

As President Obama begins the gargantuan task of selling his climate agenda to the American people, in his corner are wealthy donors he can count on to help him get what he wants.

From Wall Street whizzes to franchise owners, these donors have poured time and money to further the president's climate agenda. But two stand out: Tom Steyer, a San Francisco-based hedge fund manager, and Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder. 

Steyer and Hughes are hardly equal counterweights to the billionaire Koch brothers—two of Obama's fiercest opponents—who for decades have quietly used their wealth and influence to thwart action on climate change. Charles and David Koch are each worth $34 billion, according to Forbes. Steyer is worth about $1.4 billion and Hughes about $700 million.

Still, these newcomers to the fray are helping level the playing field in what has long been a lopsided fight inside the Beltway for America's energy future.

Steyer, an Obama donor and friend, is a longtime clean energy champion who was once considered for Secretary of Energy. For months, the 56-year-old hedge fund manager has been putting his muscle and millions behind a high-profile campaign to build public opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The offensive may not look like the gesture of an ally—the State Department recently came out with a report that many saw as an endorsement of the project—but if the grassroots protest movement grows and spreads, Steyer believes it could give Obama the cover he needs to reject the pipeline and take a firmer stand on climate issues. 

"Climate is on the move," Steyer said in an interview with InsideClimate News. "The political tectonic plates are shifting on this issue. We are going to keep the pressure on for our leaders to do right—especially for the next generation."

Hughes, who now owns majority share of The New Republic, is the digital mastermind who helped Obama get elected in 2008. When the 29-year-old took over the Washington, D.C.-based magazine in 2012, he landed an exclusive interview with the president and put him on the cover.  

Last month, the White House used Hughes' influential Washington magazine as a launching pad for Obama's much-anticipated climate action plan. Hughes declined an interview request, though a New Republic spokeswoman said neither Hughes nor the magazine tried to engineer a role in the rollout. But the move came as little surprise to media commentators.

"If I were a White House press person, I would consider ... The New Republic a place where the [climate plan] rollout would likely be given both a serious and sympathetic hearing," said Eric Alterman, a media critic for The Nation, who has been watching The New Republic closely since Hughes took over. 

Steyer: Determined and Outspoken

Just five days before Obama laid out his sweeping climate agenda at Georgetown University, Steyer stood a few miles away at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and unveiled a new social media campaign to marshal grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move 830,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands crude a day to Texas refineries.

The campaign, called We Love Our Land, bombards sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with petitions, photos and videos detailing the consequences if the pipeline is approved. The message is that the Keystone XL would lock in the United States to a type of crude oil that would exacerbate global warming. It is the latest in a series of efforts by Steyer to kick-start climate action in the United States.

Steyer made his fortune as founder and asset manager of San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management, LLC, a $33 billion hedge fund. The fund has investments in the energy sector, including in Kinder Morgan, a pipeline operator and competitor of TransCanada, the Keystone XL builder. Last year, he stepped down from the company to focus on political activism. This week, Steyer announced he will divest his own portfolio of Kinder Morgan pipeline company funds.

Steyer has long been involved in clean energy issues. In 2008, he donated $40 million to Stanford University to create the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, which fosters the development of new technologies. Since leaving Farallon, he has crisscrossed the country to participate in climate change and anti-Keystone XL rallies.

Last November, Steyer gave a six-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention extolling Obama's energy and climate credentials. In April, he held a $5,000 per-person fundraiser for Obama in his San Francisco home, where he reportedly had a private conversation with the president. Steyer also created and funded a super PAC that helped Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a vocal Keystone XL opponent, win a seat in the U.S. Senate last month.

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