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INTERVIEW-Billionaire Steyer sees clean energy in his future

Peter Henderson
Wednesday, 24 Oct 2012 | 9:14 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer says he will focus on pushing California toward an alternative energy future when he steps down from the company he founded, Farallon Capital.

The 55-year-old, San Francisco-based financier has been increasingly active in politics in recent years, lauding President Barack Obama's energy policy at this year's Democratic Party convention and donating heavily to several state ballot propositions.

California has a history of wealthy business leaders switching to politics, but Steyer said he had no plans to run for office. He left open the possibility of think-tank style policy research, but principally described the importance of mobilizing the private sector to meet the clean energy challenge.

``I've tried to organize a business voice for what I call advanced energy,'' he said in an interview Wednesday. ``At this point, I don't think I'm going to be focused on investing. I think I'm going to be focused on how to, is there a way to move the needle in some way having to do with thought or policy. And I don't know what shape that's going to take,'' he said.

Steyer donated more than $6 million to defend an environmental law in the face of a 2010 ballot proposition challenge.

This year he is sponsoring Proposition 39, which aims to close a tax loophole for out-of-state corporations. Under current law, businesses with property and employees outside of California get favorable tax treatment. Under Steyer's proposition, their taxes would be based on sales in California.

Steyer calls it ``the most blatant tax loophole in the state,'' and polls show his proposition has solid majority support.

Steyer has contributed $21.9 million to the measure, which for the first five years would funnel about half of the $1 billion raised annually to projects that create energy efficiency and clean energy jobs.

The importance of moving beyond fossil fuels is ``absolutely not recognized broadly,'' he said. ``You cannot watch the presidential debates and believe that there is an urgency about the need to move to advanced energy.''

His plan: ``We immediately get off coal. We move to something that we actually can live with, and proves we can do it in a way that provides a ton of jobs, you know, improves our health, and sets us on a profitable path for the long-term, where we are not causing massive destruction.''

Steyer on Monday announced his decision to step down from Farallon's $20 billion fund.

``It's time to focus full-time on giving back,'' he wrote in a letter to investors, describing work in a community bank, advanced energy and public policy initiatives in California.

Forbes magazine calculated his fortune as $1.3 billion. He has pledged to donate half his estate to charity, supporting a campaign by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

(Additional reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Leslie Gevirtz)