California Billionaire Tom Steyer Makes Another Big Move In The West, This Time In New Mexico
California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer made a serious move into New Mexico politics last year. Using the same tactics he developed for Nevada, Steyer helped Democrats win control of the state legislature. And just like Nevada, his spending and its impact on state politics have gone mostly unnoticed so far.
Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, gave $65,000 to Democrats running for the New Mexico state legislature and Secretary of State’s office, according to state campaign finance records. A national environmental group with close ties to Steyer – the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), based in Washington, D.C. – put another $185,000 into New Mexico campaigns last year.
The spending was focused on six key contests in the battle for control of the New Mexico state legislature, and a seventh race for Secretary of State. It paid off: Democrats now control the state legislature and hold the Secretary of State’s office. And in the legislature, lawmakers are pushing legislation to dramatically expand the state’s renewable energy mandate and penalize oil and gas producers – two major priorities for Steyer.
Steyer’s full involvement in the election outcome was missed, however. He was mentioned only a few times in news articles on individual races, described as “a San Francisco environmentalist and hedge fund manager” and a “California hedge fund manager who has been active in Democratic campaigns.”
But Steyer is much more consequential than that. He’s one of the biggest names in U.S. politics and a controversial figure – even within the Democratic Party.
Spending on green groups and state legislatures
In 2014 and 2016, Steyer spent a combined $163 million supporting Democrats in federal elections – more than any other individual, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s also a major funder of environmental activist groups, including 350.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and the LCV.
Steyer is a senior figure within the Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal millionaires and billionaires that includes New York financier George Soros, according to Politico. In recent years, the Democracy Alliance has given more attention to state-level races. “We can’t have the kind of long-term progressive future we want if we don’t take power in the states,” the alliance’s president Gara LaMarch told The Washington Post in 2015.
Steyer also has a history of trying to win state legislatures for Democrats. As Western Wire revealed last week, Steyer and Taylor personally contributed $70,000 to state legislative candidates in Nevada last year, helping Democrats win back control of the state legislature. His political action committee, NextGen Climate, also spent $260,000 on almost 50 campaign staff in Nevada during the 2016 election, an investment that boosted turnout for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
Last year, in Colorado, Steyer’s political action committee gave $280,000 to Conservation Colorado – the local affiliate of LCV – in a failed campaign to put Democrats in full control of the state legislature. And the LCV contributed another $215,000 to its Colorado affiliate for the same purpose.
In 2014, he backed Democrats in state legislative races in Washington and Oregon. In addition to targeting state legislatures, Steyer and the LCV have also been heavily involved in governors’ races in recent years. Some of those states include Florida, Pennsylvania, Maine and North Carolina.
The close partnership between Steyer and the LCV goes back to the 2014 midterm elections, when he funded the group’s national and state-level campaigning, according to the Washington Post. “There’s not a day that goes by that someone on our team doesn’t talk to someone on the Steyer team,” LCV President Gene Karpinski told the newspaper.
Steyer’s campaigning with the LCV and other green groups was even more aggressive in the 2016 election. He lobbied candidates to endorse a 50 percent renewable energy mandate for 2030, and according to the New York Times, supporting the mandate was a condition of the billionaire’s financial assistance. In 2016, Steyer also campaigned with Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and the leader of the “keep it in the ground” coalition, which opposes all development of oil, gas and coal and any infrastructure projects tied to these energy sources.
Steyer’s work with environmental activist groups set off a conflict with the Democratic coalition. Trade union leaders were angry at the job losses tied to anti-fossil fuel activism and environmental regulation.
“Tom Steyer and his allies oppose an all-of-the-above energy policy that not only creates good union jobs, but offers to keep the lights on and meet our nation’s energy needs even as we transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future,” Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, said during the 2016 campaign. “His vision of leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs, drives up energy costs, and threatens to strangle our economy.”
So what are the implications of Steyer’s move into New Mexico state politics?
Mandating renewables, restricting oil and gas
Two of the candidates backed by Steyer and the LCV – State Rep. Nathan Small (D) and State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D) – are sponsoring legislation to quadruple the state’s existing renewable energy mandate of 20 percent by 2020 for investor-owned utilities. The bill, SB312, would impose a new renewable mandate of 50 percent by 2030 – the same target pushed by Steyer – and 80 percent by 2040. Another national group with close ties to Steyer – McKibben’s 350.org – has also been working on the renewable-mandate bill.
At the same time, Democrats in the legislature are pushing a bill – SB307 – viewed as hostile to New Mexico’s oil and gas industry, which generates a major share of the state’s budget revenue. The measure would dramatically increase fines against oil and gas companies, but critics say it goes too far. “I would really like to see New Mexico encourage the industry and not try to drive it out of the state,” Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, told the Associated Press.
The same trend, in which legislation is proposed to mandate the use of renewables and restrict oil and gas production, has also played out in Nevada. Lawmakers backed by Steyer in the last election have called for a renewable mandate of 50 percent by 2030 and a ban on hydraulic fracturing, which would kill the potential for oil and gas development in Nevada before it even starts.
In New Mexico, Steyer’s influence is amplified by the presence of LCV’s state affiliate in Santa Fe. The group, Conservation Voters New Mexico (CVNM), has a strong presence at the State Capitol. At the start of this year’s legislative session, CVNM told supporters it will be “in the building day and night” to push the group’s agenda, which includes SB312 and SB307.
Oil and gas industry officials have also noticed an increase in activism against New Mexico’s energy producers. “We are under constant attack on TV and in print and from the Legislature, and also especially in social media,” Claire Chase, the government affairs director for Mack Energy in Artesia, N.M., said in comments reported by the Roswell Daily Record. “[T]he target on us is not getting smaller, it’s getting bigger,” Chase said.
While the state’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, is likely to oppose Steyer’s agenda, she is midway through her second and final term. Voters will pick her successor in 2018, and based on his track record in other states, the California billionaire could get involved in that election too.
High stakes for New Mexico’s economy
Opinions may differ about Steyer, the groups he supports, and the environmental agenda they promote together. But one thing is indisputable: Their anti-fossil fuel agenda will impose some big changes to New Mexico’s economy if it ever becomes law.
New Mexico is a huge energy-producing state. The San Juan Basin in the state’s northwest is one of the largest proved natural gas reserves in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Oil production in New Mexico has more than doubled since 2009, thanks to rising production in both the San Juan and parts of the Permian Basin in the state’s southeast, the EIA says.
In fact, despite ranking 36th in population out of the 50 states, New Mexico is the 10th biggest energy producer, according to EIA data. The energy industry plays such a big role in the New Mexico economy that one-third of all state revenue comes from oil and gas development. And after a difficult few years due to low commodity prices, the state is seeing a major influx of oil and gas-related investment, especially on the New Mexico side of the Permian Basin.
Steyer may have quietly made his move into New Mexico politics, but don’t expect things to stay quiet for long. The stakes are just too high.
Simon Lomax is the managing editor of Western Wire. A former wire-service and trade-press reporter, he now works in Denver as an adviser to pro-energy and free market groups.