WASHINGTON - Yes, the influential activist spearheading the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline has made a fortune in oil investments. Yes, he's invested in a rival pipeline that would compete with Keystone.
But no, Tom Steyer says, there's nothing untoward about his motives.
Steyer, the well-connected donor to successful U.S. political campaigns, says he left behind his previous life as an investment banker to dedicate himself to the fight against climate change.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, the man nicknamed the "green billionaire" responded to critics who question his sincerity in light of his investment portfolio.
"It is true: I have profited from investments in the past," said Steyer, who last year left the hedge fund he founded, Farallon Capital Management, to become a political activist.
"And we invested in virtually every sector of the economy over 30 years. So that's absolutely true. What's also true is that over time it became clear that we weren't as a country putting in place the policies that would help us, as a society, solve this problem.
"That was something that took me, you know, a number of years to figure out. And then I became increasingly convinced of it as I studied it."
Even before leaving his investment career, he'd signed the Giving Pledge created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to donate most of his wealth. Since then, he's promised to give U.S. wildfire victims 100 per cent of the profits from his investments in the Keystone rival, the Kinder Morgan pipeline project to B.C. — a potential sum he estimates at between $1 million and $2 million.
He's also instructed that his carbon-emitting investments be sold off.
There's another persistent whisper from Steyer's critics: that he might be using the profile created by the Keystone XL fight as a trampoline into elected office in his home state of California.
His response to that contains a couple of caveats.
"I would do just about anything to push forward sensible policies on what I think is a generational issue — maybe more than a generational issue. But I have no plans to run for office," he said.
"But if I thought that it would really be important and would make a huge difference, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
Where would he run — governor of California? The U.S. Senate?
"That's my point," he replied. "I don't see that. If I saw it, I wouldn't hesitate to do it. But I don't really see it right now."
For now, Steyer says, he's focused on defeating a pipeline project that he says would strengthen the long-term economic viability of the Canadian oilsands — with long-term consequences for the climate.
At a Washington, D.C., conference on Keystone XL earlier this month, Steyer argued that without the new pipeline, the "tarsands" would lose much of their lustre for investors because rail transportation probably couldn't carry the same load and certainly couldn't do it at the same price.
It's true that rail shipment has been estimated to cost about $5 more per barrel — the equivalent of a few cents more per litre of gasoline — which would potentially chip away at company profits.
But doubts persist about the accuracy of that $5 estimate, as well as about rail's ability to fill the void.
Wearing his trademark tartan tie and billionaire-chic tousled hairdo, Steyer presented a chart at the conference showing rail shipment couldn't come close to equalling the output of Keystone XL.
But the Canadian government points to analysis that suggests the sky's the limit when it comes to rail potential, with shipments increasing 15-fold since 2009 and ongoing projects pegged to add 700,000 barrels per day of capacity, a load similar to Keystone XL.
Of course, that comes with a higher price, more pollution and more risk as illustrated so dramatically by the disaster this past summer in Lac-Megantic, Que.
After various delays, a final decision from the U.S. government to approve or reject the Keystone XL project is expected in the coming months.
Steyer, a prominent Democratic party donor, has been urging U.S. President Barack Obama to block it. Another famous Keystone skeptic, John Podesta, has just been hired as Obama's energy and climate adviser — although the White House says Podesta will recuse himself from Keystone deliberations.
The Canadian government says what matters are the facts — and the facts support the project.
"I've been on panels with John Podesta. He's a very intelligent man," Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to Washington, said in an interview last week.
"John Podesta worked with Bill Clinton, whom we had a very good energy relationship with. The bottom line is we believe that the issue isn't (greenhouse gases). And if it is, rail has eight per cent higher GHGs than pipeline...
"The oil is coming from Canada. It's coming from Alberta. It's coming from the Bakken oil fields (in the U.S.). It's coming down on rail now. Higher cost, higher GHGs, and higher risk."
There's one thing Doer and Steyer agree on: they both say they have no idea which way Obama is leaning.
And if Keystone is ultimately blocked, in the end, the green billionaire wants Canadians to know it's nothing personal. In fact, he says, he's working to help them, too.
"Look, I view 32 million Canadians as being in the exact same boat as the United States of America — and everybody else on the planet," Steyer said.
"Which is, we need to figure out a way to grow our economies and improve our lifestyles in a sustainable fashion. And I don't see you guys as being different from us on that. If it can't happen for you, it can't happen for us."
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In September, the Dalai Lama was one of nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates who <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/07/nobel-peace-prize-winners_n_952248.html" target="_hplink">sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama</a> urging him "to say 'no' to the plan proposed by the Canadian-based company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL, and to turn [his] attention back to supporting renewable sources of energy and clean transportation solutions."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was among<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/28/nobel-prize-winners-oil-sands_n_985171.html" target="_hplink"> a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates</a> who signed letters to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging the men to stop the Keystone pipeline.
Gore has said it is essential to stop the Keystone pipeline because the tar sands oil it would carry is "the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/al-gore/the-dirtiest-fuel-on-the-_b_944186.html" target="_hplink">dirtiest source of fuel on the planet</a>."
Actor and environmentalist <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000602/" target="_hplink">Robert Redford</a> recently added his name to the list of prominent individuals who are calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/robert-redford-keystone-xl_n_1019789.html" target="_hplink">In a video for <em>The New York Times</em>, produced with the Natural Resources Defense Council</a>, Redford described the negative aspects of the proposed tar sands pipeline and said, "By deepening our reliance on oil, the pipeline would be a job killer." Redford has previously been vocal about calling for alternatives to oil. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-redford/keystone-xl-pipeline_b_978835.html" target="_hplink">Writing last month for HuffPost</a>, he said, "Let's build the next generation of energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. Let's develop wind, solar and other cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. Let's invest in high-speed rail and smart communities that give us better transportation options."
Actor <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0749263/" target="_hplink">Mark Ruffalo</a>, famous for films like "<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0842926/" target="_hplink">The Kids Are All Right</a>" and "<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443706/" target="_hplink">Zodiac</a>," is also an outspoken activist and opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. Ruffalo <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/mark-ruffalo-tar-sands_n_924245.html" target="_hplink">said in a video</a> for the <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/" target="_hplink">Tar Sands Action</a> group, "I've seen the kind of damage that out-of-control energy development can do to water and to communities near my own home, where fracking for natural gas is causing widespread pollution ... All these problems are connected -- we need to get off fossil fuels." In the past, Ruffalo has also expressed his ire for hydraulic fracturing natural gas extraction, or fracking. He told The Huffington Post, "The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/18/mark-ruffalo-fights-frack_n_810461.html" target="_hplink">world is already leaving us behind</a>. We're being left behind. America. Because the gas and oil industry has a strangle hold on us. And our politicians."
Environmentalist and author <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/" target="_hplink">Bill McKibben</a> has expressed strong disapproval for the planned Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, he was <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/press/releases/aug20/" target="_hplink">one of the first</a> of over 1,200 who were arrested at the Tar Sands Action sit-in at the White House in August. Referring to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/23/keystone-xl-frustrated-environmental-activists-obama_n_933648.html" target="_hplink">his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline</a>, McKibben told HuffPost, "The people who've carried this fight for three years are indigenous people on both sides of the border who have a huge stake in it because it's on their land, and farmers and ranchers from places like Nebraska," he said. He added, "It wasn't until I sat down and read <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-james-hansen" target="_hplink">Jim Hansen</a>'s analysis of how much carbon was in those things that I understood that this was not just a national issue, it's a global issue of the first order."
<a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000506/" target="_hplink">Julia Louis-Dreyfus</a>, known for her role as Elaine on the popular sitcom "Seinfeld," has released a video urging President Obama to reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Dreyfus recalls when Obama said "Let us be the generation that ends the tyranny of oil." But she says, "Big Oil is still pretty much running the show." She claims that by rejecting the pipeline, Obama has a chance to "make good on [his] word." <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/video-release-julia-louis-dreyfus-challenges-pres-obama-stop-keystone-xl/" target="_hplink">Louis-Dreyfus asks Obama</a>, "Denying the permit for a brutally stupid, money-grab like the Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer, right Mr President?"
Actress <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000435/" target="_hplink">Daryl Hannah</a> has also lent her voice to the movement against the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/keystone-pipeline" target="_hplink">Keystone XL pipeline</a>. In August, Hannah was one of the over 1,200 people to be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/30/daryl-hannah-arrested-keystone-protest_n_942072.html" target="_hplink">arrested as an act of civil disobedience</a> in front of the White House. Shouting "no to the Keystone pipeline" as she was handcuffed, Hannah made it clear she opposed the proposed Canada to Texas pipeline.
Maude Barlow, a Canadian author and activist and chairperson of <a href="http://www.canadians.org/" target="_hplink">The Council of Canadians</a>, was arrested in September at a Keystone pipeline and oil sands protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/26/ottawa-oil-sands-pipeline-protest_n_981052.html" target="_hplink">She was one of over 100 protesters</a> of the demonstration's estimated 400 to be arrested. Writing for HuffPost Canada about <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/maude-barlow/maude-barlow-arrested_b_982487.html" target="_hplink">her first experience being arrested</a>, Barlow blogged, "I did it because I fear we are killing the planet and I can no longer be content to only write and speak about it. Today my feet spoke for me as I crossed that barricade and took away one more fear in my life." She also said, "By investing trillions of dollars into these pipelines, governments and the energy industry are ensuring the continued rapid acceleration of tar sands development, instead of supporting a process to move to an alternative and sustainable energy system."
<a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001718/" target="_hplink">Kyra Sedgwick</a>, star of the television crime drama "The Closer," has voiced her opposition to the pipeline. In a video for the <a href="http://www.nrdc.org/" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Defense Council</a>, Sedgwick said "Just like the BP oil spill, one glitch in the tar sands pipeline could destroy our clean water sources, possibly forever."
Joining several other prominent actors, David Strathairn appeared in a video urging President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline. He calls on his fellow Americans to join the November 6 <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/" target="_hplink">Tar Sands Action</a> in Washington, D.C. <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000657/" target="_hplink">Strathairn</a>, who is known for his portrayal of journalist Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," said, "Obama ran for office speaking of the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction, promising to fight climate change and fully embrace a clean energy future. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/keystone-pipeline" target="_hplink">Keystone XL tar sands pipeline</a> is a dangerous step away from that commitment."
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