Tom Steyer's eleventh-hour bid to run for president left many Democrats stunned. Why the change of heart? It's partly because Steyer believes he's the best on climate change in the crowded field.
The billionaire financier and Democratic donor said in an interview that he is the only 2020 candidate willing to declare climate change a national emergency. Doing so, he claims, will allow him to bring the full power of the executive branch to bear on what he sees as an economic and ecological crisis that for years has defined his public and philanthropic persona.
Steyer, who at the beginning of the year said he would concentrate on his campaign to raise money to impeach President Trump, changed his mind in July. He's drawn heat from the left for vowing to spend as much as $100 million of his own money in the primary for what would be an extreme long-shot bid -- instead of funneling it to grassroots organizations or congressional races.
But Steyer argues that he's needed in the race because global warming is "an urgent emergency" and the other candidates haven't proved they're serious enough about it.
"The question is what is going to make everyone come to the idea that not a problem, but it's an emergency," Steyer said. "It's sort of like, this is 1940. We have a problem but we haven't had Pearl Harbor."
Trump's embrace of executive actions has whetted the appetites of Democrats eyeing the White House. Steyer and other Democrats are openly talking about how they would harness and further expand the power of the executive branch instead of working with Congress.
Some Republicans even warned about this possibility after Trump earlier this year declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border in a bid to expedite the construction of a border wall, suggesting a future Democratic president might also bypass Congress in pursuit of their own policy aims. “If today, the national emergency is border security,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on CNBC in January, “tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change.”
Steyer's campaign promises show that was actually quite the appealing option: He believes the president has vast emergency powers when it comes to dealing with the causes and effects of climate change. (And it's worth noting that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has called gun violence a public health emergency and has promised to take executive action if elected president.)
“The president's emergency powers are pretty broad,” Steyer said. “It gives you the ability to change regulations. It gives you the ability to move money around. It gives you the ability to do an awful lot.” Case in point: the Supreme Court voted late last month to allow the Trump administration to use military funds to build the border wall, despite court challenges seeking to stop it.
While stopping short of promising an emergency declaration, other candidates' climate plans rely heavily on presidential power, too. Every Democratic candidate says they would rejoin the Paris climate accord. And most say they would end fossil fuel extraction on federal lands.
Steyer, who made his millions managing a hedge fund, has already carved out a place for himself in Democratic politics as an environmental activist.
In 2013, he publicly urged President Barack Obama to withhold State Department approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from oil-rich Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. That same year, his environmental advocacy nonprofit organization, NextGen Climate, began injecting tens of millions of dollars into efforts to prop up Democratic candidates for office. Since Trump's election, Steyer has expanded his portfolio of causes to include immigrants' rights and Trump's impeachment. In 2017, his nonprofit group changed its name to NextGen America.
And in the 2020 race, another candidate is seeking to take on the mantle of the climate candidate: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Steyer said he considers Inslee, who has tried for years to pass a carbon tax in Washington state, a “personal friend.” He added the Washington governor “is someone who's concerned and hard-working and cares and [is] knowledgeable.” The two had been political allies in trying to win Democratic control of the Washington state Senate.
But while Inslee has called climate change a "crisis" and an "emergency" during the Democratic debates, he has also told reporters at the beginning of his campaign he would not issue an emergency declaration at this point if elected president.
“I don't think unless you're willing to declare a state of emergency you are really dealing with the [issue]," Steyer said.
Like Inslee, Steyer has a multipronged plan for dealing with climate change. Steyer wants to create 1 million jobs through a climate-focused national service program to aid in disaster readiness and response -- and to spend $2 trillion over 10 years to overhaul U.S. infrastructure by building out not only electric vehicle charging stations and energy-efficienct buildings but also affordable housing and universal broadband, to the benefit of low-income communities.
Ultimately, he wants to cut fossil-fuel use to the point where the United States isn't making a net contribution to the global buildup of greenhouse gases by 2045.
Other candidates target 2030 or 2050 as their deadlines for that goal. Steyer says he has chosen his date because it is realistic and happens to be when his home state, California, has vowed to make its electric grid carbon-free.
“There is no perfect date, and I think there is no perfect goal,” Steyer said. “But at some level you have to do something that is both feasible — that you can do successfully — and aggressive.”
Note to readers: The Energy 202 will publish on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays this week and next and take a break the week of Aug. 26 before returning full-time in September.
— Environmental groups sue over Trump’s power plant rule: A group of 10 environmental organizations is suing the Trump administration over its new power plant rule, one day after a group of 29 states and cities did the same. “With climate change impacts rising, and clean energy costs falling, EPA should be strengthening the Clean Power Plan, not scrapping it for a do-nothing dirty power scheme,” David Doniger, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean energy program said in a statement. “We’re going to court today to stop Trump from destroying the clean air laws we have to protect Americans’ health and safety from the nation’s biggest climate polluters.”
— California looks to ban controversial pesticide: The state's regulators took steps toward banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a move that follows the Trump administration’s decision to reject a call from environmental and public health groups to ban the product that has been linked to neurological damage and developmental disorders. “The state is the largest user of chlorpyrifos — more than 900,000 pounds of it was applied in 2017 to almonds, grapes, citrus, alfalfa, stone fruit, cotton and other crops, according to state data,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “ … The ban is the first time the state has unilaterally barred an actively used pesticide and will take effect in 15 days unless opposing parties request an administrative hearing.” The report adds it’s not yet clear whether the Environmental Protection Agency can challenge the state’s latest effort.
— Judge says Trump can’t take advice from disbanded energy panel: A judge has blocked the Trump administration from taking recommendations from a now-dissolved energy advisory panel that was established under former interior secretary Ryan Zinke. The Montana-based conservation group Western Organization of Resource Councils argued in a lawsuit that the administration violated public transparency laws when it established the panel, and that it filled the committee with industry lobbyists, the Associated Press reports. The Royalty Policy Committee, which disbanded in April after a two-year charter ended, was “created to make it easier to extract fossil fuels from public lands and waters,” the AP reports. The judge ruled the lawsuit “identified a gaping hole in government accountability.”
— How a McConnell-backed effort to lift Russian sanctions boosted a Kentucky project: Nearly a dozen Republican senators wanted to maintain Russian aluminum sanctions, voting alongside Democrats in January to do so. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) successfully blocked the effort, lifting sanctions on Russia’s largest aluminum producer in a move that benefited a major venture in his home state of Kentucky, The Post’s Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman report.
The details: Three months after the sanctions were formally lifted, the aluminum producer Rusal announced plans for a partnership with American entrepreneur Craig Bouchard, who was looking to build the first new aluminum-rolling mill in the United States in nearly 40 years. Rusal would provide “$200 million in capital to buy a 40 percent stake in the new aluminum plant in Ashland, Ky. — a project heralded by Gov. Matt Bevin (R) ‘as significant as any economic deal ever made in the history of Kentucky.’” McConnell spokesman David Popp said the senator “was not aware of any potential Russian investor before the vote.” “Bouchard said no one from his company, Braidy Industries, told anyone in the U.S. government that lifting sanctions could help advance the project,” Hamburger and Haldeman write. “But critics said the timing is disturbing.”
— The fate of the monarchs: Monarch butterflies, one of more than a million species in trouble around the world, could be further in crisis as a result of the Trump administration’s new move to weaken the Endangered Species Act. “With its count falling 99% to the low tens of thousands in the western United States last year, the monarch is now under government consideration for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act,” the Associated Press reports. “The administration will for the first time reserve the option to estimate and publicize the financial cost of saving a species in advance of any decision on whether to do so. Monarchs compete for habitat with soybean and corn farmers, whose crops are valued in the low tens of billions of dollars annually.” If the administration's changes make it through any legal challenges, it will affect how the government determines protections. A determination on whether the butterfly will be listed as threatened is expected by December of next year.
— A fight between nuclear energy and frackers: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weighing whether to offload 210,000 tons of nuclear waste at two sites in the Permian Basin, the critical oil patch along the Texas-New Mexico border. “The temporary facilities would be surrounded by fracking equipment — shale oil drillers that pump water and sand into the ground at high pressure to break apart rocks and free up oil and gas. One step in the fracking process can lead to earthquakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s hosts its Fifth Annual Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit.
— Greta sets sail: The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thurnberg has set out on a two-week journey, leaving from the English coast on her way to New York to attend the U.N. climate summit in September.