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How billionaire activist is pushing for action on environment

Tom Steyer, billionaire former hedge fund executive and progressive environmental activist, sat down with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board last week to talk issues important to him and his NextGen Climate super PAC. Steyer has spent tens of millions of dollars on environmental issues and to sway elections across America in favor of candidates with a focus on climate change and the environment. Here’s an edited version of his comments:

Will you proceed with your initiative on fracking?

We are going to keep pushing that idea. We’ve said repeatedly that the correct way for all these things to get done should be through the Legislature. It is a lot cheaper and you get more nuanced legislation when it goes through the traditional path.

Are you still pushing for an oil severance tax? And are you planning to come back next year with a ballot initiative?

We’ve never taken it off the table. We couldn’t do it in 2015, but we could do it in 2016. What we are asking for is not outlandish or out of the ordinary. The oil severance tax is in all of the other major oil-producing states. We’ve had the push-back from oil companies, who say but you tax us in other ways. All of our taxes put together are less than a third of the taxes that Texas pays for oil extraction. We tax our resources less highly than they tax their resources.

How long will it take before the U.S. does not have to rely on oil and other fossil fuels?

We have to break it down into oil as transportation fuels, electricity generation and climate. If you think about the things that people in the environmental community don’t like, it certainly includes coal, it certainly includes nuclear, and for a lot of people, they don’t like fracking for natural gas. So when you really look at electricity generation, we’re talking about something we couldn’t replace in a short period of time.

And then there is the question about climate. When we look at those two uses of energy in our system, which is electricity and transportation fuels, then say, OK let’s put in how much time we have, we’re obviously not changing this overnight. No one is getting rid of their car.

The way I think about the climate issue is this: Basically, people have agreed that if we get to 3.6 degrees (warmer on a global average), that’s a really crappy place. And that’s a place that is pretty hard to come back from, that it takes us to unintended consequences we can’t describe.

I reframe your question to how long before we have to change the way we generate and use energy in the United States and the rest of the world? OK, we have 50 parts per million of carbon dioxide to go (before we reach a tipping point), and we’re putting 2 additional parts per million of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and so by my rough math, that’s 25 years.

Basically, you have to think about changing our system. We live in California; we live in the state that innovates all the time. You can’t pick up the paper and not see 10 new ideas coming out of California. Thirty years ago we had rotary phones and small color TVs, and we didn’t have the Internet, and they changed the framework. So over 30 years, do we have the ability to change things amazingly for the internal combustion engine? Do we have the ability in the state of California to lead a revolution so that we can change things in time for us to have a reasonable outcome in terms of the physical world and also have a good outcome in terms of the economy? Yes.

That’s what we’re good at. I think it’s crazy for people in California to be doubting the innovation and intelligence of all the people here and around the world. And we don’t have a choice.

Based on your 25-year event horizon, at what point do the American people realize that this is a major issue?

Two-thirds of Americans already agree with what I’ve said; it’s just a really low-rated problem for Americans. The question is how does this move out to a place where people understand that this will be the generation-defining issue.

Are you a skeptic of high-speed rail?

I have been skeptical, but I haven’t come to a conclusion. What I haven’t seen and the thing to me that would be super-interesting is to look at this as an investment for the state of California. I would like to know what it would cost, I’d like to know what the usage would be, I’d like to know what the usage will replace, so that I can understand what the Delta is, what the change is as a result of having a high-speed rail system. And if you can understand that, then you could understand what the return of investment is for the people of California. I haven’t seen that. And then the question you would ask is, OK, is that best use of this money? But you’d have to know what the return is to begin with before you start talking about relative return.