Tom Steyer: Is he as green as he claims?
Ione Valley ranchers who just lost environmental suit to his former company don’t buy Steyer’s climate stance
As he prepares to make his first Democratic presidential debate appearance Oct. 15 in Ohio, Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire known for his environmental activism, is still being dogged by allegations in the Sierra Nevada foothills that his record isn’t as green as he claims.
Since leaving his investment firm in 2012, Steyer has aligned himself with progressive causes and used his wealth to promote them. He’s pledged to give half his money to charity during his lifetime and founded NextGen America, a social justice and climate change nonprofit that also promotes grassroots organizing and voter participation. Before becoming a political candidate himself, Steyer gave frequently to Democratic campaigns and paid for ads calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
But it was while Steyer was still heading the investment firm he founded, Farallon Capital Management, that a company responsible for building his fortune was pulled into an environmental debate in Amador County, 40 minutes from Sacramento. That’s where ranchers recently lost a legal battle to stop one of Farallon’s alleged investments from coming to fruition. In February, the state’s Third District Court of Appeals removed the final hurdle for Newman Minerals LLC to construct a massive mineral extraction operation on cattle-grazing land.
“Tom Steyer was the CEO of Farallon Capital Management when the land was purchased, and was fully appraised of the environmentally damaging effects this project would create on families, veterans, children and the retired in this small agricultural communities,” contended Sandra West-Moore, an Amador County rancher involved in the lawsuit. “For Steyer to claim that he cares about children being able to breathe, the planet and the environment is sheer hypocrisy.”
West-Moore and her late father, retired Marine Corps Col. Fraser West, started Ione Valley Land, Air and Water Defense Alliance to stop the project from moving forward. LAWDA argued that elected officials in Amador County greenlit a plan in 2012 to extract and truck five million tons of rock annually for the next 50 years without adequately addressing impacts to air, water, traffic and a host of other environmental concerns.
Newman Minerals LLC was the project applicant. According to a lower court ruling, Farallon is a major investor along with John Telischek, chairman and CFO of a golf management company called CourseCo.
“The 278-acre quarry and the 113-acre industrial plant site are part of a 16,100-acre portion of the Howard Ranch purchased in 2006 by investors including Farallon Capital Management of San Francisco, one of the world’s largest hedge funds,” the Stockton Record reported in 2014.
That was around the time that those trying to stop the operation claimed their biggest legal victory. A trial court agreed that the county’s draft environmental impact report downplayed the traffic impacts of hauling so much rock through the valley’s country roads, and made officials redo that part of the EIR in 2014. But LAWDA went on to argue that other environmental impacts were downplayed as well. Earlier this year, the appeals court disagreed—and now the project can move forward.
Farallon declined comment.
“We have fought this battle in court for eight years, only to lose on a technicality,” West-Moore told SN&R. “Twenty-three legacy families’ farms and ranches will be deeply affected, with the air quality, water availability and quality, noise and toxic dust.”
According to a timeline of events from LAWDA, Steyer stepped down as Farallon’s CEO in December 2012, just one month after Farallon, the developer and Amador County filed a motion to remove Farallon from being named in the lawsuit. An Amador Superior Court judge ruled against the motion in February 2013.
Looking to the presidential debates, local political consultant Tab Berg said Steyer—who is at only 1% in the most recent poll in California—will likely be defending himself from more obvious attacks.
“Your opponents are going to bring your history up, and [Steyer] can never get away from the fact that he became a billionaire trading stocks, including energy stocks,” Berg said.
“It comes across as disingenuous, as opposed to someone like Bernie Sanders who’s been consistent over the last 50 years.”
Steyer’s campaign released a statement distancing the candidate from the Ione Valley dispute.
“Tom retired from Farallon in 2012, prior to the development and legal battles around the hot asphalt plant in Amador County started to pick up in 2015,” the statement read. “Tom has divested from Farallon’s fossil fuel holdings and has provided all investment funds with a copy of his investment policy so that they can be screened clear of fossil fuel holdings. If any investments don’t meet Tom’s screening, the proceeds from those investments are donated to charity.”
His campaign website makes brief mention of his financial career, saying he “stepped down as head of his investment firm in 2012” and calling Steyer “a self-made billionaire.”
Steyer sold all of his management shares when he stepped down as CEO of Farallon in 2012, but it is unclear in his publicly released tax returns whether his personal portfolio still contains Farallon stock.
As for the upcoming debates—Steyer qualified for both the October and November ones—West-Moore has a question she’d like him to answer.
“Tom Steyer claims he divested from Farallon,” said West-Moore. “I would like to know if he divested in the real estate holdings in Farallon.”