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Exposed early to the ways and means of politics as the son of a local Democratic Party power broker, Harrison "Jack" Tibbetts, 23, is waging a statewide political battle against a formidable foe: Big Oil.

A junior at UC Berkeley, Tibbetts has beaten a path to Sacramento in recent weeks to drum up support for a ballot measure he drafted that would place a new state severance tax on oil companies and potentially raise billions, mainly for California's education system.

"The focus has always been on creating opportunity," Tibbetts said. "We have this horrible funding problem for higher education. All these people are dropping out left and right."

He also testified in support of Senate Bill 241, which was authored by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, and also seeks taxes on the harvesting of oil and gas.

Evans, who called Tibbetts "very poised, very knowledgeable and very passionate" in an interview last week, went so far as to announce that she has partnered with the political science major on their mutual endeavors.

It's a big stage for a young man who until a few years ago was still in search of a direction. Tibbetts attended Montgomery High School for two years before he transferred to the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah, where he competed on the school's ski team and earned his diploma.

Tibbetts said he worked as a shop technician for a year after high school before he decided to enroll at Santa Barbara City College. After two years there he transferred to Cal.

Recent photos posted to Facebook portray the 23-year-old Tibbetts sailing and in a thoughtful pose at a political rally on the steps of his university's Sproul Hall.

"The political portraits have begun," a friend commented on the Sproul Hall photo.

Nick Tibbetts, a local Democratic Party strategist, said his son has always been interested in helping people who are not in the best of circumstances.

Last year, Jack Tibbetts and some of his fellow Cal students created Warm 4 the Holidays, which solicited warm clothing and sleeping bags for Sonoma County's homeless.

The oil tax campaign is on another level of coordination and effort. Nick Tibbetts expressed admiration for his son — and also surprise at how far he's taken the idea. The veteran political strategist said he did not open any doors for his only child.

"It surprised me that he launched into this obviously major, major undertaking," Nick Tibbetts said. "I'm very proud of him. It's not what we expect out of college students. He's very savvy."

His son will need a lot of help politically — and hundreds of thousands of dollars — to qualify the "California Modernization and Economic Development Act" for the November 2014 ballot.

Jack Tibbetts said he's hoping to raise $600,000 from public and private donors and rally an army of unpaid volunteers to gather signatures.

The initiative requires just over 500,000 signatures from registered California voters by Sept. 23. So far, he's collected about 1,000 signatures, Tibbetts said.

The qualification process is just one round in what would likely be a costly fight against some powerful interests.

"When you're going up against Big Oil, you can't put a cap on how much money you need. It's going to take millions," Tibbetts said.

His initiative would impose a 9.5percent tax on oil and natural gas extracted from the state and sold on the global market, raising an estimated $2 billion annually.

Tibbetts proposes to divide $1.2billion from the tax equally among California's public education systems.

Another $800 million raised by the tax would go to companies making the transition to carbon-reduced energy, to state parks and to county governments to help repair and maintain infrastructure.

California, which produces 550,000 barrels of oil a day, is the only oil-producing state in the nation that does not levy a severance tax on the enterprise.

The energy industry has successfully killed efforts to impose one. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee set aside SB 241, which makes it unlikely the bill will be voted upon this year.

Evans said Tibbetts also faces an "uphill battle." She believes that voters would support his proposal if he is able to get the initiative on the ballot.

"It seems to me that the voters of California would favor college students over protecting oil industry profits," Evans said.

The initiative has been endorsed by the University of California Student Association, the Student Senate of the California Community Colleges, United Academic Workers 2865 and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who has helped Tibbetts network with groups representing counties at the state level, said the young man is "part of the next wave of leadership."

"He's very engaging and he's got some really incredible people skills," Carrillo said.

Whether successful or not, the ballot initiative could help launch Jack Tibbetts' political career should he go that route. He insisted he's not made up his mind, while at the same time expressing particular fondness for the job of county supervisor.

"I like the intimacy of local-level politics," he said.

It certainly appears on his Facebook page that he's grooming himself for office one day. In one post, the budding political thinker confessed, "To celebrate the end of the school year I am having a bubble bath and reading the latest issue of the Economist to get caught up on Japanese foreign policy. Stoked and shameless at the same time."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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