Billionaire activist Steyer: Donors will flee Obama if Keystone XL approved

Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, who’s increasingly throwing his weight around in politics, said approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline would create political hurdles for President Obama’s second-term agenda and cost him the support of key donors.

Steyer, a major Democratic fundraiser, told Grist magazine that Keystone opponents have leverage to exert over Obama even though he’s free of having to run for reelection.

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“If you look at the people who support Obama, and then you look at the people who support him actively and give money, the number of people who care about climate in this second group is actually a majority — not out of the people who support him, but the people who are really active and give money. It’s an enormously high percentage,” Steyer, who made his fortune running a hedge fund, said in the wide-ranging interview.

Steyer cautioned that Obama should be careful not to alienate these influential supporters.

"If those people decided that he was no longer somebody who’s worth supporting, even though he doesn’t have to run again, it would be terrible for him," said Steyer.

"His whole thing is, he’s trying to retain popularity to push his agenda. It’s absolutely about polls. There is no doubt in my mind, the reason that he’s considering approving Keystone is because Keystone polls well," he added.

The administration is weighing whether to approve TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline that would bring oil from Canadian oil sands projects over the border en route to Gulf Coast refineries.

Environmentalists strongly oppose the project, arguing it would worsen climate change, but polls (like this one) show public support for Keystone.

Steyer’s comments come as some climate activists are pressing the pro-Obama advocacy group Organizing for Action (OFA), which courts donations from Obama backers, to come out against the pipeline.

OFA has been increasingly active in support of Obama’s plan to focus on climate change during his second term. But it has not taken a position on Keystone, instead deferring to the ongoing federal review.

Steyer, a Californian, made waves recently when he backed Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in his successful Senate primary fight against Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) due to Lynch’s support for Keystone.

Elsewhere in the Grist interview, Steyer says he’s looking at other electoral battles and seeking to get more political donors engaged on climate issues.

Check out the whole thing here.