Tom Steyer is a man at odds with himself. He made his fortune by founding a hedge fund with a keen interest in the energy sector, including leading oil, pipeline and mining companies. The firm also gobbled up stock in BP a year after its Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. All this should hardly make him a darling of environmentalists.
Yet there’s a green streak to Mr. Steyer – one that led last year to something of an existential crisis: Climate change, the American billionaire decided, was the “defining issue of our generation.” And so he left the firm he had spent a quarter-century building, Farallon Capital Management, because it valued a company’s bottom line, not its carbon footprint.
“I have a passion to push for what I believe is the right thing,” Mr. Steyer, 55, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week. “And I couldn’t do it in good conscience and hold down a job – and get paid very well for doing a job – where I wasn’t directly doing the right thing.”
The Harper government and Canada’s oil patch might have wished he had stayed at Farallon.
Mr. Steyer has since set his sights on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He has waded into the Democratic primary in Massachusetts by lampooning a pro-Keystone Democrat, Stephen Lynch, for being in the pocket of “big oil.” Mr. Steyer also accused him – in the form of a cheeky banner, pulled by a plane through Boston’s skies – of a loyalty akin to treason: being a Montreal Canadiens fan.
It matters not to Mr. Steyer that Massachusetts could hardly be farther from both the Keystone route and his native San Francisco. Or that Mr. Lynch’s anti-Keystone opponent had to donate to charity because Mr. Steyer’s interference violated a pact to keep outsiders from influencing the race. Or that Alberta’s heavy oil is, according a Jacobs Consultancy report cited by the provincial government, less carbon-intensive than heavy oil from Mr. Steyer’s home state of California.
“We have very little tolerance for hypocrisy on the magnitude that Tom Steyer has exhibited,” Lynch spokesman Scott Ferson said.
But Mr. Steyer has powerful friends – the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who also happens to be his congresswoman. And this week, Mr. Steyer personally hosted President Barack Obama for a $5,000-a-head fundraiser, pleading with him to stop Keystone.
More broadly, though, he’s emerging as a patron of the coalition of environmental groups targeting the oil sands. An anti- Keystone protest staged this week targeted an Obama fundraiser hosted by Ann and Gordon Getty, oil heirs, and not that of Mr. Steyer, BP-buying hedge fund titan. “Tom Steyer is a great activist,” said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO Action, one of the groups that planned the protest. “We are allies in this fight.”
But, Mr. Steyer acknowledges, this whole fight isn’t strictly about Keystone.
“There’s definitely a symbolic side to this,” he said. “It has become, you know, a symbol in some ways in the fight over how to think about this. And that happens sometimes. Sometimes, specific incidents take on a life of their own.”
Mr. Steyer founded Farallon – now reportedly a $20-billion fund – in 1986. He’s a graduate of Yale and Stanford business school; at the latter, he and his wife, Kat Taylor, have since donated $40-million to found the eponymous TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. The couple have also signed the Giving Pledge, to donate half their fortune to charity, and opened a not-for-profit community bank in Oakland, which Ms. Taylor leads.
Mr. Steyer doesn’t evoke an image befitting a hedge fund titan. He drives a decade-old Honda hybrid, which he bought at the time because he didn’t “want to contribute to this [Iraq] war by driving a big gas-user.” He wears plaid ties, typically red – he bought a bunch, and now people buy them for him, so it remains his thing – and has tousled hair that’s just this side of shaggy.
He and Ms. Taylor have four children, age 19 to 24. As they have grown older, Mr. Steyer has waded more into politics. He was a founding member of a Democratic think tank, the Hamilton Project. Then-senator Barack Obama attended the opening. Mr. Steyer worked on, and helped bankroll, two high-profile ballot initiatives in California. In the first case, in 2010, he fought against Prop 23, which would have relaxed the state’s environmental laws. In 2012, he was the force behind Prop 39, which toughened the tax code for major corporations. He struck a populist tone by saying the cash-strapped state needed to “close a loophole,” leaving California manufacturers fuming.