Deep-pocketed and politically influential clean-energy and environmental donors who helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 didn’t get what they wanted most out of the White House: a price on carbon pollution.
And now as the administration stares down politically difficult decisions on these issues in the absence of a federal climate-change policy, wealthy supporters of clean energy seem split over whether they should help bankroll Obama’s reelection.
“He has done a lot of good things on the environment, and tougher fuel-efficiency standards are certainly one of them,” said Michael Kieschnick, president of CREDO Mobile Network, a cell-phone company that has donated more than $60 million to progressive causes. “But I believe if he approves Keystone, it undoes everything.”
Keystone, of course, is Keystone XL, the controversial proposed pipeline that would send 700,000 barrels a day of carbon-heavy oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. The administration is expected to decide whether to approve it in the coming months—though not necessarily before Election Day 2012.
In September, Obama infuriated his environmental base—including wealthy donors—when he postponed the Environmental Protection Agency’s tougher smog standards for two more years. On the flip side, EPA seems poised to roll out a controversial mercury standard for coal-fired power plants in December, despite heavy opposition from electric utilities. That may not be enough for some environmental donors.
In 2008 Kieschnick donated $4,600 to Obama—the maximum amount an individual could donate to a candidate then—and thousands of dollars to other Democratic causes.
“For me, Keystone is the line in the sand,” Kieschnick said. He said he hasn’t donated to Obama yet this cycle, “and I won’t until they decide about Keystone.”
Barbarina Heyerdahl, another big Obama supporter, has told media outlets she won’t contribute to Obama’s campaign either if he green-lights Keystone.
Other donors aren’t so quick to abandon Obama. They think back to Al Gore’s laser-thin loss to George W. Bush in 2000, in part because of votes that the Green Party’s Ralph Nader took from Gore’s base. To those activists, that memory ought to be burned into the minds of environmentalists who criticize Obama’s commitment today.
“Didn’t we learn the lesson the hard way in 2000? Al Gore is good enough for the Nobel Peace Prize but not certain environmental activists in this country?” asked Mitchell Berger, a Florida-based lawyer who has donated $5,000 to Obama’s reelection bid and helped raise between $100,000 and $200,000 for the campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (He also represented former Vice President Gore in the lawsuit over Florida’s 2000 recount.)
“It has been my experience that certain people who consider themselves environmental voters were the group of people who ensured that the most environmentally progressive politician, not just in the United States but the world, was not sworn in as the president of the United States,” Berger added. “I will not be a part of that.”
Berger said he was “disappointed” when Obama punted on the ozone standard. As for Obama’s upcoming decision on Keystone, he said, “that’s something I would hope we would think twice about.”
Tom Steyer, a California-based clean-energy investor who donated $4,600 to Obama in 2008, donated $5,000 to Obama in September and has helped raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the campaign already this cycle. He also attended a fundraiser that Obama held in San Francisco last month.
“I’m a Democrat who supports the president and supports his reelection,” Steyer told National Journal Daily. But he also hinted that his fundraising enthusiasm might ebb. In addition to his day job as a senior managing member at Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco, Steyer announced this week that he and other clean-energy leaders are forming a new national network of clean-energy companies, Advanced Energy Economy.
That might not leave much time to devote to Obama’s campaign. “I am going to put an enormous amount of time on [this new group], and how much time am I going to have to sleep, eat, and say hello to my family?” Steyer said. Raising money for a presidential candidate, he added, “takes an enormous amount of work.”
Clean-energy and environmental donors are keenly aware that any of the GOP contenders would likely be worse for their causes than Obama, even if he does approve the Keystone pipeline or punts on more EPA rules.
“I will work to defeat them,” Kieschnick said of Republican presidential candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom have expressed doubt that climate change is occurring or that humans are to blame. “Most political advertising is negative. I would be quite delighted to support any groups to call attention to the terrible record of any of those candidates.”
Even if he doesn’t open his wallet for Obama, Kieschnick said, he will be supporting the president simply by opposing the Republican nominee, whoever it turns out to be.
This article appears in the November 9, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.