What was Tom Steyer doing in Alberta this week? The San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire is mainly known to Canadians as Mr. No – America’s largest single political donor, he has spent a good part of his fortune opposing the Canadian petroleum industry on ecological grounds and leading the effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being built. By making his first trip north of the border with a circle of Canadian environmentalists and publicists in tow, was he quietly announcing that he intends to extend his activism north of the border?
At first, when I spoke to the 56-year-old in Vancouver on Tuesday before he departed for Alberta, he was careful to say, over and over, that he has no interest in influencing Canadian political affairs the way he has in the United States, where he is spending $100-million this year, half of it from his personal fortune, to help pro-green candidates in November’s congressional and state elections.
“Canadian politics are suitably left to Canadian citizens,” he said.
But, it turns out, he very much does have a message for Canadians, and it is clearly political, if not in the partisan sense. Mr. Steyer does not want to be seen as one of the “foreign radicals” Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ministers once claimed were meddling in Canada’s environmental movement. But given that his NextGen Climate Action political committee, one of the largest so-called SuperPACs in the United States, is devoted to portraying Alberta’s oil-sands petroleum as the greatest climate threat his country faces, he can’t avoid trying to influence Canadians in the political sphere.
“This is a global problem that calls for a global solution,” he says. “So one of the things I do hope I can learn about, and I hope happens, is that there is co-operation between Canada and the United States the way there has been in the past, where together we have managed to solve the hole-in-the-ozone problem and acid rain.”
He believes, strongly, that even the oil industry now recognizes that the climate debate is settled, that Canada has no need for an oil industry, that alternative-energy sources can be even bigger employers than petroleum, and that the market economy can make that transition happen – and he would like Canadians to recognize this, and act accordingly.
A big part of this, it turns out, is to convince Canadians that there is life beyond petroleum – that, beyond the big “no” of stopping Keystone and reducing oil-sands production levels, there is also a big “yes” of profitable post-oil enterprise.
The notion that the economy depends on petroleum revenues and jobs, he says, is a myth he’s hoping to shatter by backing clean-energy industries – including, he says, a Canadian project to extend the Ontario hydroelectric grid more efficiently into the northern United States.
“It isn’t Keystone or nothing,” he says. “It’s Keystone or a different, cleaner energy future. That message is one that hasn’t got through nearly enough, and it’s played into this false dichotomy that either we’re going to have a strong economy or we’re going to have a healthy environment. And that is a false choice that people try to use to scare citizens and voters.”
Here he has a point: Canada’s economy is far less dependent on petroleum than is often portrayed by the Prime Minister and oil-patch investors. Oil and gas make up only 8 per cent of the economy (and 40 per cent of it is not from Alberta’s oil sands); our future does not depend on oil extraction. The drama of Keystone, however bold the headlines, is not really playing on centre stage. Mr. Steyer would like to persuade Canadians that they could get by just fine without Athabasca crude.
“I don’t know how it works in Canada,” he says, “but what we’ve seen in the United States is that there are a hell of a lot more clean-energy jobs than there are fossil-fuel jobs.”