California billionaire on crusade against Keystone pipeline

WASHINGTON -- Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund executive and environmental activist from San Francisco, chose his venue carefully.

“It is here President Obama drew his own personal line in the sand,” Steyer said as he convened a conference on the Keystone XL pipeline Monday at Georgetown University.

The reference was to a speech by Obama in June in which the president declared he would approve Keystone only if backers of the pipeline could prove that the project would not accelerate climate change. The pipeline is designed to move hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily 1,200 miles from Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries.


The conclusion reached at Steyer’s conference was unanimous and hardly surprising. Experts invited by Steyer and other conference organizers, all of whom oppose the project, declared that it would not meet the president’s test.

The event was another reminder of how politically awkward Keystone has become for Obama. Steyer is one of the president’s biggest donors. A fundraising event he held at his home during the reelection campaign was one of Obama’s most successful. Other deep-pocketed donors listen to Steyer. Democrats in Washington are eager to tap his funds.

And Steyer is on a crusade against Keystone. The billionaire not long ago quit his job running a major San Francisco hedge fund to spend all his time campaigning on global warming issues. Pressure applied by Steyer, the star of his advertising campaign against Keystone, has helped put into limbo a project that once seemed headed for approval.

Obama’s comments at Georgetown and elsewhere since that speech have indicated that he is strongly considering denying the project the approval it needs to go forward.

How much of an impact Keystone would have on the environment is fiercely debated. The State Department declared this year that rejecting the project would do little to slow climate change. The oil would still flow, its analysis warned, only to be shipped by rail. But soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency criticized that analysis, releasing a comment letter warning that the State Department approach had failed to properly assess key variables, including the market for the heavy tar-sands oil.

Steyer’s event Monday was a cross between political pressure and academic symposium. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who introduced Steyer, called it “an in-your-face summit.” But much of the day involved scientists and advocates showcasing detailed slide shows to make their points against the project.

Presenters argued that offsetting the emissions created by Keystone would be impossible, that approving the pipeline would slow the momentum toward cleaner energy, and that Keystone approval would render greenhouse gas reduction goals already approved by lawmakers unreachable

As the panelists warned of the dangers of the project, supporters of Keystone took to the Twittersphere. The American Petroleum Institute distributed a graphic citing work by the State Department and the Canadian Economic Research Institute and declaring the project would have no significant environmental impact and create more than 100,000 jobs. Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action, says the project would create a mere 35 permanent full-time American jobs.

Twitter: @evanhalper