Weeks of negotiations at the Oregon state level about how to handle a controversial environmental regulation seemingly collapsed just days after Tom Steyer, an influential Democratic donor, contacted the governor's office.
The incident this summer highlighted the struggles that have plagued the Oregon government this year, as well as the power that Steyer, an environmental activist, wields at both the state and national level.
It's a problem critics have accused the White House of fostering: allowing deep-pocketed green donors to call the shots on environmental regulations that have far-reaching implications.
Just months after Oregon's former Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, resigned amid allegations about his proximity to environmental groups, Gov. Kate Brown's office was involved in a series of behind-the-scenes talks with state Republicans and Democrats about how to reconcile a potential transportation package with an expensive and controversial low carbon fuel standard policy.
Rep. John Davis, a Republican member of the state legislature who participated in the transportation negotiations, said the "failed and expensive" low carbon fuel standard was a sticking point in the ultimately unsuccessful talks.
"I think it's clearly one of the top priorities of environmental organizations in the state of Oregon," Davis said. "It is one of their prizes, and I don't think they want it to be touched, although I will say that I've had discussions with both legislators and initial discussions with those in the environmental community and I think that the view is softening among some, although they won't be public about it, about what a modification to the [low carbon fuel standard] might look like."
Documents obtained recently through a public records request indicate Brown spoke with Steyer by phone on June 16. In her handwritten notes from the call with Steyer, Brown wrote that the low carbon fuel standard was "very important in terms of lobbying/campaigns."
Steyer's political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, spent roughly $300,000 on state races that handed significant victories to Democratic candidates in 2014, Federal Election Commission reports show.
That year, Steyer beat out heavyweight spenders on both sides of the aisle to become the top political donor of the cycle with more than $73 million in donations to liberals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Steyer even accompanied Brown's energy adviser to Paris last month for a series of high-level climate change negotiations among world leaders, the East Oregonian reported.
A spokesperson for Brown's office said the note about Oregon's low carbon fuel standard and its importance to campaigns was taken from a "conversational context."
"The phrase you shared is Governor Brown's interpretation of the part of her phone conversation in which [Steyer] is telling her about California's experience with this issue in that state, how various interest groups acted and reacted during those deliberations, i.e., a 'what Oregon might learn from our experience' conversational context," Kristin Grainger, spokesperson for the governor's office, told the Washington Examiner in an email.
Individuals familiar with the transportation talks said four Democrats and four Republicans had nearly clinched a transportation deal that included an alternative to the controversial low carbon fuel standard before the Steyer call. Afterwards, Democrats seemingly backtracked on their support of a provision that would repeal and replace the environmental regulation.
On June 17, one day after Steyer pressed on Brown the importance of the low carbon law "in terms of lobbying/campaigns," state Democrats sent a letter to the governor outlining their refusal to repeal the standard.
"We could not, however, support a package premised on repeal of SB 324, the most important piece of climate legislation Oregon has passed in years," the Democrats wrote to Brown, referring to the low carbon fuel standard.
That bill, initially passed in 2009, will force oil distributors to limit the amount of carbon in their gas products. It has not yet been implemented, but has already run into problems given its projected increase in the cost of fuel.
While the state government reportedly said the new standard would only raise the price of one gallon of gas between 4 and 19 cents, a private group predicted the regulation could raise the cost of a gallon of gas between 33 cents and $1.06. That group, Western States Petroleum Association, lobbies against low-carbon standards, according to the Oregonian.
Steyer's presence in Oregon politics stretches back to the scandal-tinged Kitzhaber administration, which ended in February when the embattled governor resigned.
Kitzhaber stepped down over allegations of impropriety involving his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. Critics accused Hayes of exerting undue influence over Kitzhaber's administration while collecting paychecks from clean energy groups, an allegation she and the former governor denied.
Brown, then Oregon's secretary of state, joined the chorus of fellow Democrats piling on Kitzhaber before his resignation when she released a statement describing a meeting she had had with the embattled governor as "bizarre." Brown publicly revealed that Kitzhaber had called her back from a conference in Washington, D.C., for a private meeting, only to question why she was there when she returned.
Emails obtained from Kitzhaber's office showed he and Hayes planned to meet privately with Steyer in Nov. 2013 shortly after a "VIP reception."
"I think the private meeting is most important," Hayes said in response to an email from Jan Murdock, Kitzhaber's executive assistant. "[W]e need to start planning a bi-state strategy."
Murdock reportedly attempted to have emails scrubbed from state servers just before Kitzhaber resigned.
Nationally, Steyer has thrown his support behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. His decision to back Clinton came after a period of uncertainty about her energy positions.
In an age when leading Democrats like Clinton continue to decry the power of PACs, Steyer has lead left-leaning donors to the top of PAC contributors in recent years. The efforts of his PACs included pressuring President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline proposal, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Steyer vehemently opposed the Keystone project and has poured millions into its defeat. He publicly applauded Clinton when she expressed her opposition to the project in September, capping off months of evading questions about her stance.
When Obama announced the White House's official rejection of the Keystone Pipeline in November, critics accused the president of bowing to powerful green lobbyists by folding on a project that would have created jobs and improved access to petroleum.
Steyer could not be reached for comment.