A wealthy environmentalist who has become an increasingly prominent force in California politics called on Democratic lawmakers today to use their supermajority powers to enact a new tax on oil pumped in the state.
Tom Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire who recently left his job as a hedge fund firm to focus on political and environmental activism, called the oil severance tax the one area of energy policy where California lags other states in the nation in a speech at the California Democratic Party convention Saturday.
"This isn't just a question of our taking a fair share from huge, hugely profitable oil companies," Steyer told delegates. "This is about doing the simple task - the walk and chew gum of government - to showing us that we can do the right thing for the citizens of California in opposition of some very, very big companies."
Previous attempts to set a tax on oil extracted in the state has failed to attract enough votes to win approval in the state Legislature. Steyer said the legislative supermajorities, which could allow Democrats to pass new taxes without GOP votes, and the potential that hydraulic fracking will lead to more oil production in the state make now the right time to act.
"We've missed a couple to chances over the last 150 years, but let's not miss another if we can afford it," he said.
Steyer has waged major battles over environmental policy on the ballot in recent years, spending $32 million in the November election on a successful attempt to change a corporate tax formula to raise revenue for green energy and conservation projects.
He declined to directly address whether he'll go to the ballot himself if the Legislature fails to act, saying he believes lawmakers will take action. He did, however, offer to provide any financial or other support needed to make the proposal a reality. That support could be key if lawmakers chose to put the issue in front of Californians to comply with Gov. Jerry Brown's pledge to put any new taxes up or a vote of the people.