Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who has pledged to spend $100 million in the midterm elections to push his climate change agenda across the nation, announced Tuesday that he would fight efforts to delay a key element of California's landmark environmental law.
Steyer said he would "spend what it takes to win" but declined to say how much money he or his Super PAC would devote to thwarting efforts to delay the Jan. 1 start of a new phase of the law: including motor vehicle fuels in the state's system for buying and selling rights to emit greenhouse gases.
Environmentalists and oil industry representatives alike say that including vehicle fuel in the emissions cap-and-trade system could add at least 15 cents to the average price of a gallon of gas. That prospect has prompted the oil industry and some moderate Democrats to try to delay the implementation until 2018, saying Californians will be harmed at the pump and beyond.
"This is yet another direct attack on the basic climate bill in California," Steyer said in an interview after touring a mobile asthma clinic in Boyle Heights and holding a roundtable discussion with physicians, health officials and environmental activists.
Oil interests "do a knee-jerk reflex reaction, which is: We're going to punish consumers if you treat us the way we treat every other industry in the state of California," he said. "That's just wrong. I don't understand where they get off."
Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the oil industry-backed Californians Against Higher Oil Taxes, took issue with Steyer's assertion, saying, "It comes as no surprise that an out-of-touch billionaire is pushing policies that will hurt Californians who can least afford it."
The fuel requirement is part of the state's law intended to reduce air pollutants. The law was signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and later backed by voters who rejected a 2010 effort to suspend it.
Polling released last week showed that about three in four Californians support the inclusion of vehicle fuels. However, that support dropped to 39% if the move would lead to higher gas prices, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Legislation offered by a Central Valley Democrat would delay the mandate until 2018.
Steyer plans a three-pronged approach against such a move: organizing those most affected by pollution, countering the oil industry's public-relations efforts and monitoring price fluctuations at the pump.
Steyer's announcement is part of his effort to make climate change a pivotal issue in this year's elections. He is being hailed by the left as a deep-pocketed answer to wealthy Republican backers like the Koch brothers but is facing increased scrutiny about his past links to the industry he is now challenging and about recent lackluster fundraising.
"I never thought that I was going to be able to go out and push on energy and climate and not have people try and investigate me and … try and put me in a negative light," Steyer said, chuckling. "I think it's par for the course."
Much of the attention showered on the San Francisco billionaire has focused on his national political spending and advocacy, notably in high-profile gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests.
But Steyer made his political bones in California, fighting the 2010 effort to suspend the cap-and-trade law and backing a successful 2012 ballot measure that changed the way out-of-state corporations are taxed.
This year, Steyer announced he would spend millions of dollars on California legislative races, which would be key to passing an oil extraction tax that is among his priorities.