California seems to be moving toward imposing a tax on oil pumped from the ground, either through a legislative bill or a ballot measure, a new poll suggests.
The poll -- commissioned by NextGen Climate Action, the group formed by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer of San Francisco -- found most likely voters in the state want oil companies to pay such a tax. According to the poll, most likely voters also want counties to be able to vote on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for oil and gas within their borders.
The poll of 800 likely voters, conducted in late April, found 64 percent support an oil-extraction fee while 27 percent oppose it. Support for the fee crosses party lines, with 71 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans in favor. And when told that California is the only one of 22 oil-producing states that doesn't already have such a fee, the support of likely voters grows to 75 percent.
The oil industry profits from California's natural resources and should pay its fair share, Steyer told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "And right now, let's face it — they don't."
As oil companies use techniques -- like hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- that may pose increasing environmental threats, "the next generation of Californians is taking greater risks and getting nothing in return," Steyer said, adding that the poll "is just the beginning of what we're doing in California."
Steyer plans to put a measure on 2016's ballot to impose an oil-extraction tax if the Legislature doesn't enact one before then. SB1017 by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would do just that; the Senate Governance and Finance Committee approved on a 5-2 vote Wednesday morning.
Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Californians Against Higher Oil Taxes -- a group formed in March by business and oil industry groups -- called Steyer's poll "misleading, flawed and disingenuous."
"He successfully created a one-sided poll that fits his views as an ultra wealthy individual who does not have to worry about rising energy costs," she said, noting that the poll didn't tell voters that oil companies already pay property and other taxes and that the additional tax would make California's oil among the nation's highest-taxed overall.
Asked where the money for a new oil tax should go, 83 percent of likely voters surveyed said they supported spending it on creating new jobs by investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water systems and mass transit; 81 percent support using it to lower tuition at state colleges and universities; 79 percent support using it to create jobs by investing in energy efficiency and renewable-energy infrastructure; 78 percent support using it to pay down the state's long-term debt; and 74 percent support using it to cut income taxes by 30 percent for households earning under $100,000 per year.
On fracking, 78 percent of likely voters support letting counties vote on whether to allow it within their borders -- again, support spanned party lines, with 87 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 66 percent of Republicans in favor. And 67 percent of likely voters said they're less likely to support a candidate who opposes such local control.
The poll's margin of error for all likely voters was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Voters won't back such a tax if it means higher gas prices and grocery costs, Lockhart said. She said California already has the nation's most stringent environmental standards for oil production, including fracking, and voters already can make themselves heard at the local level. San Benito County supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to put a fracking ban, proposed by a citizens group, on November's ballot.
"It should come as no surprise that someone who has made millions in foreign oil investments would want to threaten our state's energy independence so that California consumers are left footing the bill," Lockhart said of Steyer.
The Republican National Committee in the past week has stepped up attacks on Steyer and Democrats who accept his money, while also criticizing right-wing benefactors such as Charles and David Koch of Kansas. Steyer recently challenged the Koch brothers to a two-on-one debate.
"So far, all we've heard is the cricket sound coming from Wichita," Chris Lehane, NextGen Climate's chief strategist and a veteran political and crisis communications operative, told reporters Wednesday.
Lehane said NextGen Climate would prefer that the Legislature enact an oil-extraction tax as soon as possible, but the oil industry is bringing millions of dollars to bear on defeating Evans' bill and so a 2016 ballot measure might still be necessary. "There's clearly a huge effort to try to impact this from the industry," he said.
A bill to enact such a tax would require Gov. Jerry Brown's signature, and Brown -- seeking re-election in November -- said in January that he doesn't believe this is the year for new taxes.