Billionaire Tom Steyer and his Super PAC, NextGen Climate, are making big moves in Pennsylvania this year.
The organization aims to call out elected officials who deny the existence of climate change while working with those who are fighting to stop it. In Pennsylvania, it has its eyes on the gubernatorial race between Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf.
During a 2011 budget speech, Mr. Corbett said he wanted to make Pennsylvania “the Texas of the natural gas boom.” In May, during an interview with StateImpact — an NPR-affiliated policy news site — he said the reality of climate change was “up for debate.”
A spokeswoman for NextGen Climate said it is working to show voters how Mr. Corbett “stood up for powerful energy companies (who are significant contributors to his campaign) at the expense of Pennsylvania voters’ best interests.”
Last week, NextGen sent a Right-to-Know request for all correspondence between Mr. Corbett and oil and gas companies, plus campaign finance records.
NextGen also asked that Mr. Corbett “acknowledge that you have wronged the people of Pennsylvania by giving away the state's proverbial family jewels to the oil and gas industry and impose the kind of common-sense extraction tax that other states have required — in order to cut taxes and fund public schools.”
The Super PAC is also focusing on campaigns in Florida, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine and Michigan, states where elected officials have not supported the fight against climate change.
Also last week, NextGen released its first advertisement in Pennsylvania, called “Listen.” The 60-second spot claimed that Gov. Corbett has received $1.7 million in political contributions from the oil and gas industry and in return gave them “a sweetheart deal on taxes that’s costing Pennsylvania billions.”
The third U.S. National Climate Assessment, released in May, said Pennsylvania produces 1 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of those produced by the U.S.
“In Pennsylvania, low-income communities are disproportionately affected by asthma and often live in the shadow of the state’s biggest polluters,” Mr. Steyer wrote in a May op-ed for the Huffington Post.
Mr. Steyer, 56, of San Francisco, has pledged to raise $100 million for the campaign — $50 million of which will come out of his own pocket — though NextGen would not disclose the proportion budgeted for Pennsylvania.
Between June 2013 and June 2014, NextGen received $16.6 million in itemized, individual contributions and spent more than $14 million on advertising for the multi-state campaign. Of that, $16.4 million came from Mr. Steyer himself, the records show.
Despite these efforts, Mr. Steyer said in a June blog entry on NextGen’s website that he would be “the first to admit that climate change has not always been on my radar.” He’s the founder of Farallon Capital Management, a global investment company through which he amassed a personal fortune of more than $1.5 billion, much of which came from investments in Indonesian and Australian coal projects.
In a July 2013 letter to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.. he said he was stepping down from Farallon Capital Management because he “no longer felt comfortable being at a firm that was invested in every single sector of the global economy, including tar sands and oil.”
In a press release last week, Chris Pack, Mr. Corbett’s campaign communications director, said Mr.Steyer was a hypocrite who made his fortune by investing in the coal industry and who is now “waging a war on coal because it will benefit him financially.”
In response to NextGen’s Right-to-Know request, the Corbett campaign encouraged the organization to check the campaign’s “easily searchable database,” which lists all of its spending between 2004 and 2014.
“Gov. Corbett balanced the budget,” the Corbett campaign said, “and has increased state spending on education by over $1 billion, leaving our schools in a much better fiscal position than they were in when he took office.”
Pennsylvania‘s energy executive, Patrick Henderson, responded to NextGen‘s commercial and Right-to-Know request with a formal letter. He wrote that “no one has done more to protect the environment than Gov. Corbett,” citing the incorporation of pipeline safety standards by the Public Utility Commission, as well as increased setbacks for drilling operations from streams, ponds and water wells.
NextGen Climate would not divulge any information about further plans in Pennsylvania, including whether it is going to contribute directly to campaigns, but because the state is on its list of targets for November, there will be more to come.
“Gov. Corbett continues to put the oil and gas industry first, rather than fighting for Pennsylvania families,” a NextGen spokeswoman said. “It's time Pennsylvanians got the leadership they deserve.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article's headline and text stated Mr. Steyer lives in New York City. He is from New York but lives in San Francisco.
Max Radwin: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1280 or via Twitter @MaxRadwin