In the world of national politics, California billionaire Tom Steyer is a well-known figure. He was the largest single donor of the past two federal election cycles, spending $163 million trying to win control of Congress and the White House for candidates who share his views on energy and the environment.
Those views are well outside the mainstream, of course. Steyer has tried to ban hydraulic fracturing in California, the fourth-biggest oil-producing state in the nation, and he’s a major donor and a key ally to “keep it in the ground” groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club.
As SHALE Magazine has noted before, Steyer’s efforts at the national level have mostly failed. While the public supports renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, they support the nation’s oil and natural gas producers, too.
At the same time, away from the national spotlight, Steyer and the activists racked up some significant wins during the 2016 election. These were quiet victories in down-ballot races that almost nobody knew about until after Election Day. But they have significantly expanded Steyer’s influence in two key states – Nevada and New Mexico — with major implications for energy and environmental policy across the West.
The Push to Ban Oil and Gas Production in Nevada
Nevada campaign finance records show Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, personally contributed $70,000 to five state legislative candidates — all Democrats — in the 2016 election. Their victories helped Democrats take back control of the state legislature from Republicans, who had been in the majority since 2015.
While Steyer’s outside spending in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto made headlines in Nevada, the San Francisco billionaire’s involvement in state legislative races went almost completely unnoticed. “It never got much traction in the press or with the public,” Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, told Western Wire.
But when the Nevada legislature convened in early 2017, Steyer’s anti-oil and gas influence quickly became obvious. Two lawmakers backed by the activist billionaire introduced a bill to ban hydraulic fracturing, an essential technology for developing oil and natural gas. The bill received a hearing in February, generating local and national headlines.
The introduction of the anti-oil and gas measure was a surprise to many observers. When Democrats last held a majority in the Nevada legislature, they flatly rejected calls to ban hydraulic fracturing. Nevada isn’t a major oil and gas producer today, but the state’s geology holds some promise, and in 2013 a Democratic legislature voted unanimously — 41–0 in the Assembly and 21–0 in the Senate — for a bill that allowed exploratory drilling and hydraulic fracturing to proceed.
Since then, leading environmental regulators and advocates have also rejected proposals to ban hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas development. For example, Sally Jewell — President Barack Obama’s second-term Secretary of the Interior — has said that hydraulic fracturing “has been done safely for many, many years.” Jewell, who served on the board of a national environmental group before joining the Obama administration, has also warned that oil and gas production bans are “the wrong way to go” and the activists who push for state and local prohibitions “don’t understand the science behind it.”
Steyer’s candidates also introduced a bill that would set a renewable electricity mandate for Nevada of 50 percent by 2030, with a longer-term goal of 80 percent by 2040. This is a dramatic increase from the state’s existing standard of 25 percent by 2025, but, once again, passing new laws on renewable energy is a big priority for the California billionaire.
On the campaign trail last year, his political action committee — NextGen Climate — pushed all candidates to support a 50 percent national renewable mandate by 2030. In fact, backing the mandate was a condition of the billionaire’s financial support, according to The New York Times.
Rising Anti-Oil and Gas Activism in New Mexico
Just like in Nevada, Steyer made a serious move into New Mexico politics last year, and it also went mostly unnoticed until after Election Day.
Together, Steyer and Taylor gave $65,000 to Democrats running for the New Mexico state legislature and Secretary of State’s office, according to state campaign finance records. But they weren’t alone. A national environmental group with close ties to Steyer — the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), based in Washington, D.C. — put another $185,000 into New Mexico campaigns last year.
The spending was focused on six key contests in the battle for control of the New Mexico state legislature, and a seventh race for Secretary of State. And it worked: Democrats won full control of the state legislature and the Secretary of State’s office.
In New Mexico, oil and natural gas production is one of the state’s most important industries. Despite ranking 36th in population out of the 50 states, New Mexico is the 10th biggest energy producer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Roughly one-third of the state’s budget revenue comes from oil and gas development, in fact.
For this reason, oil and gas opponents have taken a more calculated approach. Rather than push for a ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, lawmakers instead proposed a bill to dramatically increase fines against oil and gas companies. But oil and gas supporters blew the whistle nonetheless. “I would really like to see New Mexico encourage the industry and not try to drive it out of the state,” Carla Sonntag, President of the New Mexico Business Coalition, told the Associated Press. And just like Nevada, Steyer-backed lawmakers proposed a new renewable energy mandate as well — 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.
At the same time, there’s been a noticeable increase in activism against the state’s energy sector. Claire Chase, the Government Affairs Director for Mack Energy in Artesia, New Mexico, said, “We are under constant attack on TV and in print and from the Legislature, and also especially in social media,” according to the Roswell Daily Record. “[T]he target on us is not getting smaller, it’s getting bigger.”
All Eyes on 2018
The measures supported by Steyer and his allies are unlikely to become law in Nevada or New Mexico in the short term, because both states currently have Governors who oppose his agenda. But in just two years, things could change. Republican Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico are both term limited, and voters will pick their successors in November 2018.
Will Steyer get involved in these key gubernatorial races? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, it would be wise to pay him close attention.
About the author: Simon Lomax is a Denver-based consultant and an adviser to pro-business groups. Before going into advocacy, he was a reporter for 15 years and covered energy policy for Bloomberg News and Argus Media. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax.