Capitol Alert

Tom Steyer floats oil extraction tax amid gas price spike

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks at the California Democratic Party convention on Friday in Anaheim.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks at the California Democratic Party convention on Friday in Anaheim.

Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer said Friday that he’s considering putting an oil-extraction tax on next year’s California ballot, increasing pressure on refiners amid a surge in gasoline prices and possibly raising the stakes on his climate change crusade.

Steyer, standing in front of a chart illustrating the recent price rise at the gas pump, said he may link a tax proposal with the requirement that oil companies disclose more information about their supplies and prices. He released an internal polling memo showing both questions – including the 10 percent oil tax to fund higher education – would begin a campaign with strong support.

Steyer was instrumental in passing another energy-related measure in 2012, and defeating an oil-backed attempt to roll back the state’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions law.

“There’s a huge human justice issue here about whether hardworking Californians are paying way too much for gasoline and the companies are being able to manipulate it ... and triple their profits,” Steyer told reporters at the California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim, where he plans to meet with delegates and other officials to gather input.

It could be one of several tax hikes on the 2016 ballot, which may include increased levies on tobacco and an effort to modify the state’s decades-old property tax limit.

California is one of 22 oil-producing states that don’t charge an oil-extraction tax. A 10 percent excise tax would raise about $2 billion annually. But a campaign would have to contend with well-funded opponents. The last attempt at levying a similar tariff, Proposition 87 in 2006, went down after its oil-company opponents argued gas prices would rise.

A representative for one industry-supported group is already accusing the former hedge fund manager of hypocrisy.

“It’s ironic that a billionaire who is promoting policies that will cause energy prices to rise suddenly cares about what Californians pay at the pump,” Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Californians for Energy Independence, said in a written statement Friday.

Steyer counters that gas prices are set by the global market, and says he’s been active on the issue in recent months.

He called on state senators to subpoena oil industry executives following two price spikes, including one after two refineries – Exxon Mobil in Torrance and Tesoro in Martinez – went offline because of an explosion and labor dispute.

Last week, after being encouraged by Steyer, Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, demanded that the companies provide more information about their operations, including maintenance, outages and price surges.

Christopher Cadelago: (916) 326-5538, @ccadelago