by: Salena Zito, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Among politicians whom liberal billionaire Tom Steyer will aim to unseat in November is Gov. Tom Corbett, whose Democratic challenger will get a boost from the San Francisco environmental activist because of Pennsylvania's shale gas industry.
Steyer, 56, intends to spend up to $100 million through his NextGen Climate Action super-PAC to convince voters that climate change is the most important issue in the fall elections. In addition to Corbett, Steyer has set his sights on two other Republican governors and four U.S. Senate races.
He wants to accelerate political support for an issue he considers “critical” before it's too late, Steyer wrote in an emailed statement.
“This means making politicians feel the heat — in their campaign coffers and at the polls,” he said.
NextGen Climate Action wrote in a statement that it will use climate change as “a wedge issue to motivate voter turnout to hurt climate-change opponents” in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Steyer's mission is to destroy energy and manufacturing jobs, said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
“His dangerously out-of-touch, radical policies will be rejected wholesale in our commonwealth,” Windle said.
Indeed, using climate change as a wedge issue with voters in an energy-rich state such as Pennsylvania — the fourth-largest coal producer and a state with brisk job growth from shale gas drilling — could prove tricky for the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, York businessman Tom Wolf, said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Though polls show “a solid majority of Pennsylvanians believe that global warming is occurring,” Borick said, “I don't see the issue being particularly salient in the governor's race. Pennsylvania voters generally view shale gas as a positive for the state but do oppose many of the approaches that Tom Corbett has taken, particularly his refusal to support a severance tax.”
The more Wolf can keep the campaign's focus on a severance tax and not the more polarizing issue of climate change, the better off he will be on the issue, Borick said.
Though Wolf provided $10 million to his campaign through donations and a loan, he ended his primary run with $1.6 million, state records show. Corbett's campaign has $6.3 million on hand.
Wolf campaign spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan was not surprised that Steyer has Pennsylvania in his cross hairs, given Corbett's decision not to tax oil and gas companies — something Sheridan said Wolf supports.
As governor, Wolf would “promote policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy alternatives and invest in green energy technology and infrastructure,” he said.
Wolf would appoint “qualified” individuals to lead the departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources, not people who care about special interests, Sheridan said.
Corbett spokesman Chris Pack noted that the governor put forth “a comprehensive climate change plan” to reduce emissions but not jobs in the energy sector, which employs more than 400,000 Pennsylvanians.
“The facts are this: Thanks in large part to the production of natural gas in Pa., Pennsylvanians are saving an average of $1,200 a year because of lower energy prices, and greenhouse gas emissions are at a 15-year low,” Pack said.
He noted that Corbett proposed and signed a law imposing a “unique natural gas extraction fee, paid by gas drillers, that has generated over $630 million in new revenue.”
Steyer made millions of dollars from investments in fossil fuels as a managing partner of Farallon Capital, a San Francisco-based hedge fund he founded in 1986. He stepped down in 2012 to become a full-time activist. He later wrote of his decision to leave Farallon, which helped finance coal project acquisitions in Indonesia and Australia, that 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.”
He has vowed to punish lawmakers who oppose climate-change action, and his in-your-face tactics have earned him fierce enemies. Critics accuse him of hypocrisy because much of his fortune was made through energy investments.
NextGen Climate Action last year spent millions of dollars supporting two Democrats: U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.