Oil companies that bankrolled a $9.7 million effort in 2014 to block laws against fracking in California now are focusing their sights on Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge-fund founder turned climate-change activist.

The top individual political donor in the U.S. last year, Steyer has put millions of his $2.7 billion personal fortune into the cause, hired Governor Jerry Brown’s former top spokesman and challenged Chevron Corp. Chief Executive Officer John Watson to a public debate on gas prices.

In its campaign against him, Californians for Energy Independence -- whose contributors include Chevron, Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. -- has been probing possible conflicts between Steyer’s business interests and legislative advocacy, attacking him in press statements as a “billionaire super-PAC king” and shadowing his public appearances.

“This is part and parcel of the way politics works right now,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which documents the influence of money in politics. “You have a small number of people who are making their presence felt in a huge way, and they become fair game.”

Steyer is part of this small but growing cadre of mega- donors whose influence has grown since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case lifted limits on independent campaign spending. Now, non-candidates including Steyer, the Koch brothers and George Soros are subjects of attacks, much like politicians.

Unflattering Films

The conservative David and Charles Koch have been the focus of at least three unflattering films and a KochWatch.org website with the tagline “Billionaires Corrupting Democracy.” The liberal Soros was featured in an hour-long Fox News television program, “The Puppet Master,” with conservative host Glenn Beck.

Steyer -- who founded and ran Farallon Capital Management LLC for almost 27 years before leaving at the end of 2012 to focus on climate issues -- backs a bill in the California Senate that would cut petroleum use in half, double the energy efficiency of buildings and increase retail sales of renewable electricity to 50 percent by 2030.

He worked on the bill with Kevin de Leon, its author and the Senate president pro tem, and has lobbied for the legislation. He also criticized oil refiners about California gas prices at a press conference with Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog advocacy group.

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