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COMMENTARY: Green billionaire Tom Steyer’s money might explain why Nevada Democrats now oppose fracking

What a difference four years — and a California billionaire — can make.

The Nevada Legislature is considering a bill to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” an essential technology for developing the vast majority of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells. Nevada isn’t a major oil and gas producer today, but the state’s geology holds some promise, and a handful of exploratory wells have been drilled. A fracking ban would end this energy exploration and the economic benefits it may bring.

The bill to ban oil and gas development, AB159, has already received a hearing in Carson City and generated significant media attention. The situation is dramatically different from four years ago, when state lawmakers wanted nothing to do with “keep it in the ground” environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity.

In 2013, Democrats ran the Legislature, as they do now. But lawmakers flatly rejected calls to ban fracking. Instead, they overwhelmingly approved a bill that allowed the technique in Nevada under a new set of regulations. The pro-fracking bill cleared the Assembly in a 41-0 vote and passed the Senate 21-0 before it was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

What has changed? The answer most likely involves Tom Steyer, a hedge-fund manager and billionaire environmentalist from San Francisco.

Nevada campaign finance records show Mr. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, personally contributed $70,000 to five state legislative candidates in the 2016 election, all of them Democrats. The candidates were Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, Assemblyman Justin Watkins, Assemblyman Chris Brooks, state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse and state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro. Their victories helped Democrats win back control of the Legislature after two years of Republican rule. Two of Steyer’s candidates — Assemblymen Watkins and Brooks — are pushing the oil and gas ban. They are also pushing another energy bill, AB206, which would double the state’s renewable electricity mandate to 50 percent by 2030, with an even bigger goal of 80 percent by 2040. Assembly Speaker Frierson is also a primary sponsor of the bill to dramatically expand the state’s renewable energy mandate.

These measures line up perfectly with Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda. He’s tried to ban fracking in his home state of California. He has very close financial and political ties to “keep it in the ground” groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club, which actively oppose oil and gas development in Nevada. During last year’s election, Mr. Steyer’s political action committee — NextGen Climate — pushed candidates to support a 50 percent renewable mandate by 2030. According to The New York Times, supporting the mandate was a condition of the billionaire’s financial support.

In 2016, Mr. Steyer built an impressive field operation in Nevada, capable of helping candidates at the top of the ticket and down the ballot, as well. His political action committee had almost 50 campaign staff in Nevada during the 2016 election cycle, according to campaign finance disclosures with the Federal Election Commission.

Yet almost nobody noticed the California billionaire’s personal contributions in key state legislative contests and how his ground game would influence down-ballot races. Instead, the press focused on his spending in Nevada’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race. That was important, to be sure, but it was only part of the story.

Mr. Steyer is the largest single political donor of the past two election cycles, having spent at least $163 million trying to send more Democrats to Washington, D.C., who support his anti-fossil fuel agenda. But he’s also invested heavily in state legislative races across the West, including in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, as well as Nevada.

Mr. Steyer has a First Amendment right to support the candidates and causes of his choosing, of course. But the public also deserves to know why a California billionaire cares so much about who controls the Nevada Legislature.

Simon Lomax is the managing editor of Western Wire. A former wire-service and trade-press reporter, he now works in Denver as an adviser to pro-energy and free-market groups.

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