(This story has been corrected from its original version. The correction clarifies the last paragraph to explain that Steyer’s donation was to a ballot initiative committee headed by the candidate, not to the candidate himself. The Daily Caller apologizes for the error.)
Questions have been swirling around why hedge-fund tycoon and Democrat mega-donor Tom Steyer didn’t disclose his role in a controversial campaign to get state and local governments to file climate change lawsuits against energy companies. Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate Action distanced itself from the strategy, telling Politico’s Morning Energy in September” “We’re definitely not pushing this thing.”
The theory is that energy companies including ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron misled the public about climate change, just as tobacco companies lied about the effects of smoking, and should therefore be forced to pay costs for decades to come. For instance, they argue, energy companies should be responsible for $44 billion in water infrastructure improvements in Steyer’s home state of California.
There are many reasons to doubt the merits of such cases, but one thing should be clear: The prospect, no matter how fanciful, of such a colossal transfer of wealth from energy companies (and their shareholders) to the fiscally distressed state of California should be tantalizing to blue state Californians. One would think Steyer, who may be considering a run for statewide office, would proudly own his role.
Nonetheless, Steyer’s NextGen has publicly distanced itself from the political campaign to push the plan. The denial is even more puzzling, given that in September, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Next Gen “repeatedly promoted the effort and attempted to enlist federal and state officials in efforts to bring charges against Exxon for allegedly misleading the public and its shareholders about the dangers of climate change.”
A November Daily Mail article further corroborated Steyer’s involvement, disclosing correspondence documenting Steyer’s deep connection to the litigation strategy going back to March, 2015. The bombshell report connected the dots about NextGen’s role in what turns out to be a campaign designed to use taxpayer dollars to fund a dubious legal strategy.
The Daily Mail report also gave additional credence to speculation in the New York Post that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe into energy companies “smacks of politics,” as former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco put it.
Indeed. The New York Post obtained a March, 2016 email suggesting Schneiderman was using his bizarre investigation to solicit Steyer cash to prop up a potential 2018 New York gubernatorial bid.
Steyer attorney Ted White wrote that “Eric Schneiderman would like to have a call with Tom regarding support for his race for governor . . . regarding Exxon case.”
Schneiderman drew widespread rebuke for his over-zealous execution of Steyer’s agenda to instigate taxpayer-funded litigation. He even floundered when trying to enlist other Democrat state AGs in his probe, which targeted not only energy companies, but think tanks which raised questions about climate change policies.
When it became impossible to deny NextGen’s role, the super PAC was eventually forced to come clean, at least partially, admitting to Politico’s Morning Energy, “It’s not something that Tom personally is pushing, though some of our teams on the ground have participated in rallies or events to support our coalition partners.”
Steyer isn’t one of those mega-donors who generally operates in the shadows. He features himself in his multi-million dollar ad campaign calling for the impeachment of President Trump. So why would he go so far as to impeach his own credibility by denying his role in pushing elected officials to initiate climate litigation?
A major clue came out late in December, from the most unlikely of sources: Steyer himself. The lawsuits were supposed to look as if they were initiated by elected officials, acting on the will of the people, rather than as part of a comprehensive strategy backed by an eccentric billionaire activist.
Steyer, perhaps feeling too comfortable at The New York Times’s 2017 ClimateTECH conference, offered a glimpse into his climate change strategy, calling the issue “predominantly a question of politics.”
Ironically, he suggested that those who disagree with his apocalyptically-justified agenda are simply being duped by moneyed interests. “There are people for whom doing, following, that apparently logical, economically-sensible, health-creating strategy is bad for them- and so they don’t want it.”
Therefore, he continued, “all we really need to do is, in our opinion, get enough people with the information so they can act on their own behalf in a democracy.” He wants it to camouflage his record-breaking political spending by making it appear that the only outcome of his mega-spending is fostering a better-informed electorate.
So it’s no wonder he’d go to great lengths to hide his central role in creating the appearance of support for his agenda. For instance, the Free Beacon reported that the New Hampshire division of Next Gen “held a rally in April explicitly billed as an effort to advance Schneiderman’s anti-Exxon legal campaign.” As questions were raised about NextGen’s involvement, the group scrubbed the press release from its webpage. Except it was sloppy, and @NextGen NH left up the tweet about it. (Don’t bother, @NextGen NH, I’ve taken a screenshot.)
Steyer, according to The Washington Post was the biggest spender in the ugly 2016 election. So it must be awkward for him, especially amongst allies on the left, to explain his hedge fund-derived political influence.
While his unlimited super-PAC spending must be disclosed, his strategy dictates that he downplay his climate-change influence when possible. And, apparently, even when not possible.
Whether it’s deleting webpages or dissembling to Politico, Steyer and his political organization try to make it appear that their only impact is informing the public.
In reality, Steyer’s operation is like an astroturf-generating team of well-paid lawyers, consultants and of course, campus organizers to get bodies to rallies. All that doesn’t come cheap. Next Gen’s president and CEO, Matt James received compensation in excess of $750,000, according the group’s 2014 tax filing.
Perhaps it was money well-spent, given the group’s ability to keep the litigation campaign secret until the last quarter of 2017.
Yet the disclosure of his group’s active involvement in spurring taxpayer-backed climate change litigation undermines the very strategy Steyer described in his New York Times talk.
For its part, Steyer’s outsized spending to affect voting decisions has been effective. California election records show that in late 2016, Steyer had contributed $30,000 to a ballot initiative committee named for Ed Lee, who would go on to win San Francisco’s mayoral election. The ballot initiative propounded changes on homelessness and housing policies in line with Lee’s campaign platform. In September of 2017, the city filed suit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Shell.
Jeff Stier, unrelated to Tom Steyer, is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.