WASHINGTON - San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, a friend to Barack Obama and a major Democratic financier, is unveiling a social media campaign on Thursday that aims to rally the president's formidable online army of supporters against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Steyer and a coalition of environmental and social justice groups will be in the U.S. capital to step up their efforts against Calgary-based TransCanada, a company they accuse of wanting "to reap billions in profits by getting the United States to allow the shipping of dirty tarsands oil across America’s heartland for export to China and beyond while the United States will get very little in return."
At a news conference at D.C.'s downtown National Press Building, the groups will assert that most of the arguments in favour of constructing the pipeline are no longer valid.
The increasingly toxic relations between TransCanada officials and Steyer were laid bare in a media advisory announcing the event and that Organizing For America, the activist pro-Obama group, had joined their efforts.
"TransCanada lobbyists and PR people must remain in the hall outside," the release said in capital letters.
Chris LeHane, a spokesman for Steyer, said Wednesday that the atmosphere "has become toxic because we want to stop the toxins from coming into our country."
Steyer wrote an open letter to Obama earlier this month, just two months after hosting the president at his San Francisco home for a Democratic party fundraiser, urging him to reject the pipeline.
The former hedge fund manager turned climate-change activist warned that his political action committee, NextGen Action, planned to "intensify our efforts in communicating what is the right policy choice to your administration."
Steyer argued that the B.C. provincial government's recent decision to oppose Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline had "demolished" a critical argument held up by Keystone supporters, including the U.S. State Department, that Alberta's oilsands will find a market with or without the controversial TransCanada project.
Enbridge has said it's working on addressing the B.C. government's environmental concerns about its pipeline, which would carry Alberta oilsands bitumen to the Pacific Coast, and intends to meet the conditions laid out by provincial officials.
Steyer's letter, meantime, has resulted in an ongoing war of words with TransCanada.
"Mr. Steyer continues to peddle the false dichotomy between fossil fuels and renewable energy in an attempt to stifle a pragmatic, fact-based debate," TransCanada blogger Matthew John, a recent hire for the energy giant, wrote shortly after Steyer made his dispatch to Obama public.
"Fortunately the majority of Americans, including President Barack Obama, know that a diverse and robust energy mix leads to greater energy security."
Steyer fired back last week with a hard-hitting letter to TransCanada CEO Russ Girling taking issue with many of the company's public proclamations about the benefits of the pipeline while questioning why he's been so publicly confident that Keystone will be approved.
"I remain extremely confident that we'll get the green light to build this pipeline," Girling said late last month.
Steyer said he found that assertion particularly suspicious given it was made in the midst of an increasingly expensive, multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign by TransCanada. He urged Girling to divulge details of the company's recent lobbying efforts.
"Isn't it important for the public to understand whether you know something the American people don't?" Steyer asked in his letter.
Steyer, worth an estimated $1.4 billion, isn't worried that a rejection of the pipeline will sour diplomatic relations between Canada and the U.S. for years to come, said LeHane.
"Our issue is with TransCanada, a foreign company trying to advance a project we think is bad for our country; it's certainly not with the Canadian people, and we know that a lot of Canadian citizens themselves are opposed to the tar sands," he said.
"Let's put it this way, if we're watching Canada play the Russians in World Cup hockey, we're still cheering for the Canadians."
Along with other wealthy liberals, including Warren Buffet and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, the 55-year-old Steyer is viewed by the left as an antidote to the conservative Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch, the billionaires behind Koch Industries, throw their financial muscle behind a range of free-market and conservative causes, and are supporters of Keystone XL.
Steyer and Obama have reportedly had several discussions about Keystone XL as Steyer becomes an increasingly vocal pipeline opponent.