Billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s political career has truly been plunging. The self-proclaimed eco-hero has slipped from 5% to 4% in a poll of possible contenders for the California governorship next year. These abysmal polling results place Steyer at the bottom end of an eight-person field of potential candidates. Given a typical survey’s margin of error – between 3% and 6% – one could easily say Steyer may not even register at all in the minds of California voters.
That has to be disappointing news for a man who has already spent $174 million of his own money in the last two election cycles working to raise his political profile. So far, it appears Mr. Steyer has virtually nothing to show for his troubles. Since President Trump was elected, he has been searching for ways to become relevant and has even resorted to crowdsourcing for ideas.
Judging by a series of tweets employing sharply worded rhetoric, Steyer believes he may have found a way to raise his profile: Politically tying the Trump administration with Russia and the oppressive regime of Vladimir Putin. In a February 14 tweet, he issues the call to action: “Call your member of Congress. Demand an immediate investigation into Trump & the Russians.” Steyer was hammering the “Russia issue” in early December, tweeting, “Trump would make Russia our basic partner—a totalitarian regime based on fossil fuels & run by a former KGB officer.”
But straight from the “You-Just-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up Department,” Steyer has had his own shadowy connections with Putin’s inner circle and KGB operatives.
With Steyer serving as senior managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, which he founded, the hedge fund invested in Geotech Oil Services in 2008, one of the largest oilfield service companies in Russia. The importance of foreign capital investment in Russian energy cannot be exaggerated. Oil and gas revenues provide between 21% and roughly 50% of the Russian government’s funding, depending on which source one believes. Following the Russian takeover of Crimea, America’s European allies were in the difficult position of having to replace their Russian energy supply in a hurry.
In 2010, Steyer sold part of his hedge fund’s holdings in Geotech to the Volga Group, a privately held investment group that that manages assets on behalf of Russian billionaire and Putin intimate Gennady Timchenko. The U.S. Department of the Treasury specifically named Timchenko as being among “those being designated for acting for or on behalf of or materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, a senior official of the Government of the Russian Federation.” It noted that “Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin.” A U.S. State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks went even farther, noting that Timchenko, the man with whom Steyer enjoyed a business relationship, “is rumored to be a former KGB colleague of Putin’s.” Responding to Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the State Department targeted Timchenko with sanctions.
It has also been reported that under Steyer, Farallon’s activities in Russia fell under “intense scrutiny” in the late 1990s and early 2000s for its alleged involvement in “illicit attempts to capitalize on the economic liberalization of the former Soviet Union.”
Perhaps it is only coincidence that Steyer’s war against America’s energy producers eerily corresponds with Putin’s covert efforts to subvert American oil and gas production through environmental propaganda efforts focused on fracking and pipelines. According to a January 6 analysis by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “this is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.” Gazprom is Russia’s state-owned oil and gas monopoly. Indeed, a much greater threat than sanctions comes in the form of competition from abundant and less expensive American oil, which is now putting a squeeze on the Russian economy (the U.S. overtook Russia and Saudi Arabia as the largest combined producer of oil and gas in 2013). Russian revenues from oil and gas exports fell by 17.7% just between 2015 and 2016 alone and amounted to $73.676 billion.
And then there’s the matter of the Sea Change Foundation, which was exposed in a 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for its major funding from Klein Ltd, a Bermuda-based shell corporation closely connected with Putin confidante Leonid Reiman, Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft, and Russian energy investment groups including Firebird New Russia Fund and Vimpelcom Ltd. In 2011, according to the committee report, Klein channeled more than $23 million to a “Who’s Who” list of anti-fracking groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Most interesting of all, in the period from 1997 to 2015, Sea Change donated more than $64.8 million to the Energy Foundation, a “pass-through” financing organization to which Steyer’s Tomkat Charitable Trust donated $4.15 million. Having passed through Sea Change, the tainted funds were then disbursed to other anti-fracking groups, including the Blue Green Alliance Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund and many others.
All of this is not to suggest that Steyer is a secret agent for the Kremlin. But it further burnishes his reputation of epic hypocrisy and exposes his desperate bid for relevance. When his insincere attacks on the “Russia issue” inevitably fall flat, we can count on him to chase after another section of the sky he claims is falling.
Craig Richardson is the president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute.