FRESNO, Calif.—Billionaire political activist Tom Steyer claimed during a town hall that corporations purposefully aimed their pollution directly at poorer communities because they lack the resources to fight back Thursday night.
"So in fact when we think about everything we've done in terms of working for clean water, like SB 623, or when we talk about trying to get rid of diesel exhaust engines in California or when we talk about trying to redo ‘cap and trade' we know we have to start with economic and environmental justice and a coalition that includes peoples in low-income communities because we know they've been targeted for pollution," Steyer said at the head of a group panel in Fresno.
He made similar comments again when addressing a larger crowd later in the evening.
"Our federal government is working on behalf of corporations and their bottom lines at the expense of people. So they're rolling back regulations that prevent pollution and make people sick and make people die."
The comments in the second of the "5 Rights" panel discussions and town halls comes as news broke just two days earlier that Steyer was posting job advertisements for a "national campaign team" on the career-networking site LinkedIn, heightening speculation that these events, along with his heavy giving to Democrats in 2018, are a launching pad for a presidential bid.
A spokeswoman for Steyer confirmed the job listings but told BuzzFeed news that he still hasn't made the final commitment to make a run for president.
Thursday's discussion was titled ‘The Right to Clean Air and Clean Water." His website has called them a "a set of guaranteed protections for each of us" and that the "5 Rights must be like constitutional rights."
The event was held in Fresno because that California community has a documented history of water quality issues. But much of the discussion focused on local issues rather than national politics. Steyer has not been shy at taking square aim at blaming Republicans for most ills he sees, but Democratic dominance of California politics was only given glancing comment with regards to what problems Fresno has faced.
"California has a working democracy," the San Francisco resident said late in the evening at the town hall that followed the panel discussion. "I mean, we have big problems. We have injustice. We have, you know, income inequality. We have huge housing problems. We're here to talk about—we're here because we have gigantic health problems associated with clean air and clean water. But we also have a democracy that's trying to address those in an honest fashion."
The state has witnessed continuous control by Democrats of both the state house and senate since 1997. Only Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's term from 2004-10 broke up that stretch kept Democrats from holding all three main levers of power in state government, according to data compiled by Ballotpedia.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks state and federal politics.
In the earlier part of the evening, one of the panelists was asked how the Trump administration had impacted Fresno. The panelist suggested there needed to be more reinvestment into water infrastructure, but the answer never came back around to laying blame on the current administration.
While there are isolated incidents of water quality that draw national attention such as what happened in Flint, Michigan, there's not much evidence of a public outcry from the great mass of Americans claiming to be deprived of either clean air or clean water.
According to the Pew Research Center, environmental issues failed to crack the top ten of most important issues to voters heading into the 2016 elections, and only placed 10th on the same survey just before the 2018 vote. But the broad category of "environment" may encompass other issues well beyond just clean air and water.
"This is a solution in search of a non-problem here," said Nic Loris, an environmental policy expert for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. "If you look at the air and water quality in the United States, we have clean air, we have clean water, and the trends have shown improvement in a number of metrics in [those categories]."
According to the Environmental Performance Index, an assessment and ranking compiled by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities, the U.S. ranks 10th in the world in air quality.
For water, the U.S. ranks 29th in water and sanitation, putting it in the top 16 percent of all nations. One expert speculated that the slightly lower ranking may have more to do with the number of rural residents who rely on septic tanks as opposed to full-on sewer systems in more urbanized areas.
But deeper inside the water quality index, the rankings show U.S. is tied for 1st in quality of drinking water.
Loris noted that many improvements in air and water quality in the country have come from recent technological improvements.
"The key question right now is given that we have such clean air and clean water, does it make sense to have additional, stringent regulations?" Loris told the Washington Free Beacon. "Typically, on a cost-benefit analysis, the answer is an overwhelming and resounding ‘no.'"
"To get an additional amount of environmental benefit that would be, largely, in some cases too small to measure, you're imposing huge costs on American families and businesses."
Steyer's discussion for clean water and clean air as standard American rights also comes at a time where both local and global politics are evidencing that citizens are keenly aware that environmental reforms come with a cost which constituents are not always willing to pay. Such outcomes further suggest voters don't see environmental propositions as binary either-or decisions.
In Arizona this November, voters rejected a Steyer-funded initiative by a margin of 69-31 that would have dramatically boosted the state's renewable energy portfolio. Prop 127 was not advertised exclusively as a climate change issue, but was also promoted as a "clean air" concern.
By a narrower margin, Washington residents scraped a proposed carbon fee, which would have been the first of its kind in the nation.
One of the panelists noted these two political losses for Steyer, at which point Steyer pointed out he had also notched wins for renewable energy policies in two other states this year.
But more recently, the world has been transfixed by the "yellow jacket" protests in France, which originally began as a rebellion against increases on gas taxes.
"The French ‘yellow vest' protests have ignited a debate on the left in the U.S. over how to avoid a similar backlash if Democrats get the chance to enact new environmental laws," a recent report from NBC news noted.
Steyer's pointed focus on blaming corporations for air and water pollution also seemed to hold no conflict for him personally with regards to his previous career as an investor, through which he became a billionaire and which has since enabled his political activism.
"I loved being an investor," he told the crowd of about 75.
Dates have not been set for town halls for the remaining three items on the ‘5 Rights' list. An official with Steyer previously told the Free Beacon that it was certain they would not happen in December, but would wait for the new year.
In the previous "5 Rights" town hall last week in Charleston, S.C., Steyer said, "When we think about the right to an equal vote, there is a determination right now to take away equal votes from people, largely by organized Republican interests."