Wealthy Democratic environmentalists are considering withholding support for a 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential bid unless she reassures them about their top priority: Killing the Keystone XL pipeline.
“She’s kind of a closed book on the environment,” said Guy Saperstein, an Oakland-based venture capitalist and former president of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club Foundation. “I, for one, would not support her until she gives us more information.”
So far, Clinton has demurred on Keystone -- she declined to answer directly a question about it during a March 5 event in Vancouver -- even though it was under review by the State Department for much of her tenure as secretary.
“She could be a leader on Keystone if she wanted to be,” Saperstein said. “This is a great opportunity for her to show a little courage.”
It’s also an issue that comes with risks. If Clinton were to oppose the proposed pipeline that would carry oil sands crude from Canada to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast, it may help in a primary presidential bid while complicating her candidacy in a general election.
The public backed the pipeline construction by 65 percent to 22 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted from Feb. 27 through March 2. It is more controversial among Democrats, according to the survey, which showed they approve of it by a 51 percent to 32 percent margin. Among self-identified “liberal Democrats,” who often make up an out-sized share of the primary electorate, only 36 percent favored the project compared with 47 percent who didn’t.
Democratic activists also must calibrate their actions as Clinton is favored in polls to be the party nominee, regardless of her position on Keystone and other climate matters.
Betsy Taylor, a political strategist who is working with environmental activists and donors, has heard other contributors talk of backing away from Clinton without more assurances on their top issue. To ward off that action, she’s using data to nudge the would-be candidate to clarify her stance.
“Many of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent supporters hope she will acknowledge the rapidly changing data on climate disruption,” Taylor said. “New data is in, and Hillary is a woman who respects the facts. We hope she’ll encourage the president to step up and deny this permit.”
The nation’s elite environmentalists have another form of leverage: money.
The relaxation of campaign finance laws in recent years has emboldened them. Farallon Capital Management founder Tom Steyer has pledged to pump $100 million -- half from his own pocket and the other half from allies -- into the 2014 mid-term elections to reward politicians who oppose Keystone and seek to limit use of fossil fuels, and punish those who don’t.
Steyer warned President Barack Obama in a publicly released letter last year about his planned anti-Keystone campaign “that will specifically focus on communicating to those Americans across the country that supported your re-election in 2012.”
His super-political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, spent $8.5 million in the 2013 elections, most of it in Virginia to help elect longtime Clinton family friend and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe as governor, according to the committee’s filing with the Federal Election Commission.
A spokeswoman for the super-PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums on campaigns, declined to say whether Steyer will support Clinton in 2016. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill did not reply to requests for comment.
Steyer, whose net worth is estimated at $2.6 billion by Bloomberg analysts, will face a difficult choice if Clinton gets into the 2016 race and doesn’t enhance her credentials.
In the 1980s, he was a protege of future Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin at Goldman Sachs. He was a leading supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign before raising money for Obama after she dropped out.
Steyer and his brother, Jim, are currently partnered with the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation on an early childhood education initiative called “Too Small to Fail” -- the first project that Hillary Clinton undertook after leaving the State Department.
Clinton has given environmental activists reason to worry that she’s not ready to cut off the use of fossil fuels soon.
In 2010, she commissioned the State Department’s first-ever, four-year strategic planning report, called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which called for creation of a new Energy Bureau within the department. The mission of the bureau: “To unite our diplomatic and programmatic efforts on oil, natural gas, coal, electricity, renewable energy, energy governance, strategic resources, and energy poverty.”
The State Department tried to walk a fine line between embracing efforts to combat climate change and using energy, including fossil fuels, as a tool of diplomacy.
“The national security and economic prosperity of the United States and our international allies and partners depend on global markets for oil, gas and coal,” the report found. “Yet, these fossil fuels also account for most global production of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing our reliance on them is central to our efforts to combat global climate change.”
Last October, Clinton heralded the news that the U.S. was surpassing Russia in oil and gas production during a speech at Hamilton College in upstate New York, prompting an outcry from local activists who oppose the “hydraulic fracturing” process that has bolstered natural gas reserves.
When she was asked about the Keystone pipeline last week at the Vancouver event, Clinton declined to take a position, saying it was inappropriate for her to comment on a matter still under consideration by the Obama administration, according to the Vancouver Sun.
While Clinton, like most Democrats, has long supported increasing government subsidies for alternative energy sources and decreasing them for oil companies, her reticence on Keystone has drawn criticism from Republicans as well.
“Secretary Clinton thwarted the Keystone Pipeline at every turn even though multiple State Department studies show that the pipeline proposes little environmental risk,” said Tim Miller, executive director of the Washington-based America Rising PAC, which publishes negative research on Democratic candidates. “Rather than stand up to her liberal base or own up to her own opposition she has repeatedly used typical political excuses to avoid taking a stand.”
The set of top Democratic environmental donors is not monolithic, which complicates efforts to use money as leverage.
For example, Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell, who recently co-hosted a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser with Steyer and has partnered with him on the promised $100 million super-PAC ad campaign for the mid-term elections, is already giving big checks to organizations that support Clinton.
A personal friend who has hosted Clinton at her Bolinas, California, home, Buell took a lead role on the finance committee for the super-PAC Ready For Hillary last year, giving a maximum contribution of $25,000 to the group. Buell also wrote checks totaling $400,000 in 2013 to help seed a pro-Clinton research operation inside American Bridge, a Washington-based group that circulates negative material on Republican candidates.
David Goldwyn, the founder of the energy consulting firm Goldwyn Global Strategies who served under Clinton at the State Department, said the former secretary will reap support from environmental donors hungry for action because she is able to navigate the legislative and regulatory challenges that have blocked climate-change initiatives in the past.
“They want a closer,” Goldwyn said.