Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer has poured some of his fortune into fighting a pipeline from Canada to Texas and promoting Democrat Terry McAuliffe's bid to become Virginia governor, but his newest cause has required considerably less investment.
Steyer flew three southwest Virginia residents to Richmond to keep alive the politically charged side of a dispute over natural gas royalties. They announced Wednesday the launch of a group called "Virginians For Clean Government.''
The campaign will send southwest Virginia residents across the state to tell the story of the battle between landowners and two energy companies over royalty payments, as well as the state attorney general's office involvement in the dispute. The case has been a political embarrassment since a federal judge last summer wrote that she was shocked that an assistant attorney general appeared to be helping the energy companies against a possible class action involving thousands of property owners.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe's Republican opponent, has called the assistant attorney general's work overzealous, but has said her interest was solely in defending a state law that is at the center of the case.
His protestations have not appeased the three - all Democrats - who joined Steyer on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
"They took resources out and they didn't give money due to these folks,'' Matt Skeens of Coeburn said of the energy companies, EQT Production and CNX.
The parent of CNX, CONSOL Energy, has donated more than $100,000 to Cuccinelli's campaign.
"We're here really to ask Ken Cuccinelli to give the money back to CONSOL or resign as attorney general,'' Skeens said. "He really needs to start answering questions.''
Starting Monday in Roanoke, southwest Virginia residents will travel the state to deliver that message.
"It's unfair to the constituents and we want to help out and get the word out,'' said Valeria Castle Stanley of Castlewood.
Steyer played down his financial support of the campaign, calling it minimal.
"I'm really here to listen to what these guys have to say,'' Steyer said. As a businessman, he said, he plays by the rules and the natural gas dispute seemed "ridiculously unfair.''
"Unless I really don't understand what happened, this seemed to me on the face of it outrageous,'' he said.
State GOP spokesman Garren Shipley said the campaign rolled out by Steyer is built "on the false premise that Ken Cuccinelli sold out southwest Virginia. He didn't do that. It couldn't be further from the truth.''
Shipley said the attorney general's office has properly defended a law that ensured that royalty checks from energy companies would continue to flow to southwest Virginia landowners.
He also questioned the involvement of Steyer, calling him "an extreme environmentalist'' who has campaigned against coal. "The irony there is palpable,'' he said.
In an interview, Steyer acknowledged, "It would be disingenuous for me to say there's not a political element to this.''
Steyer has devoted some of the riches he earned as an investor to lobby against the Kestone XL oil pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in Alberta to refineries in the Houston area. His political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, is spending $1 million on a series of TV ads to fight construction of the pipeline, and he's personally lobbied President Barack Obama on the subject.
In the Virginia governor's race, his PAC has donated $439,000 to the McAuliffe campaign and purchased more than triple that sum on ads aimed at Cuccinelli.
Asked to explain his support for McAuliffe over Cuccinelli, Steyer said the Democrat speaks his language.
"Terry is a business Democrat who is interested in new energy,'' he said. "That's attractive to me.''