American Petroleum Institute (API)

Nominated for organising an “astroturf” campaign against the US Climate Bills. In August 2009, a leaked memo from the API revealed it had invited its membership to attend a series of rallies in 20 key states, in order to give the impression of a groundswell of grassroots opposition to the climate legislation.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the key oil industry lobby organisation in the United States, representing some 400 companies that cover the spectrum of the oil and gas industry, from the largest major to the smallest independent.

The API has a history of lobbying against legislation on climate change. As far back as 1998, the API plotted to roll out an anti-Kyoto campaign, as revealed in a memo leaked at the time: “Victory will be achieved when … the media understands (recognises) uncertainties in climate science … those promoting the Kyoto Treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”

The API has been lobbying vehemently against the most recent climate legislation to pass through the US Congress: the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill, after its authors. The Bill was approved by the lower House of Representatives in June 2009. The vote was the first time Congress had approved legislation designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

So far in 2009, the API has spent over $4.1 million on political lobbying, much of it directed at trying to defeat the Bill. It was outraged that Congress passed it. “The bill will cost Americans billions of dollars in higher costs, kill jobs and will not deliver the environmental benefits promised,” API President Jack Gerard said. “We are hopeful that the Senate will produce a bill that does not harm the economy and includes a more balanced approach to transportation fuels and natural gas.”

You can see why the API was so worried. As a New York Times editorial put it: “What the oil companies are probably worried about is that people and industries will consume less of their product as alternatives appear and consumers become more energy-efficient. But isn’t that the point of the exercise?”

Hence the API’s astroturf campaign, which they called “Energy Citizen” that the API held over Congress’s Summer recess. It was mainly targeted at key politicians from the US Senate which were due to debate and potentially adopt a similar Climate Bill to the Waxman-Markey Bill. The Senate legislation is called the Kerry-Boxer Bill, after the Senators promoting it.

Astroturfing is a public relations and lobbying technique where an organisation like the API sets up a grassroots movement to give the false impression of a popular movement for or against proposed legislation, or other regulatory action.

Big business has a history of setting up astroturf groups with the name “Citizen” in them, such as the Global Climate Coalition (set up by an oil company) and Citizens for the Environment (business lobbyists fighting the clean air act). The unsuspecting public does not see the dirty hand of big oil, they just see ordinary people.

The API proposed a series of rallies across the country populated with API members’ staff, purporting to be ordinary citizens. According to a leaked API memo, the objective of the rallies was to “put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy and to aim a loud message at those states’ U.S. Senators to avoid the mistakes embodied in the House climate bill and the Obama Administration’s tax increases on our industry.” So, the public sees workers fighting for jobs, not big oil fighting climate legislation.

In the same leaked memo, API President Gerard notes the effectiveness of their scaremongering campaign in changing public opinion: “Our messages on Waxman-Markey-like legislation work extremely well and are very persuasive with the general public and policy influentials. After hearing that Waxman-Markey-like legislation could increase the costs of gasoline to around $4 and lead to significant job losses, these audiences changed their opinions on the bill significantly.”

This figure of $4 a gallon for gasoline, which is used to scare the public, is from a calculation made by the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation. It predicted a rise in gasoline prices to “$4 by 2035”. The API conveniently left out the 2035 date. It also ignored figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which show that the overall cost of the Bill would, in fact, be around 22-30c a day, or under $100 a year.

The API chose the cities where it was going to hold its rallies carefully. They were in the 20 states and local districts of Congressmen who were in marginal seats and the states of Senators who hold the key votes to getting the Bill through the Senate.

The API counts as members companies who publicly purport to care about climate change, like Shell and BP. Shell has distanced itself from the campaign, although it said that its employees were free to go to the rallies. BP also says it supports the Waxman-Markey Bill. But neither appear to have done anything to dissuade the API of its plans.

However, the API’s lobbying campaign backfired when its memo was leaked to Greenpeace, despite API President Jack Gerard stressing in the memo: “Please treat this information as sensitive and we don’t want critics to know our game plan.”

Yet, the astroturf Energy Citizens website continues to oppose the Senate climate legislation, arguing it is a “huge new energy tax on farmers, truckers, small businesses and America’s families” that “imperils millions of US jobs.”

In the “About” section on the website it still states: “Energy Citizens is a nationwide alliance of organisations and individuals formed to bring together people across America to remind Congress that energy is the backbone of our nation’s economy and our way of life.”

Nowhere does it say it is an astroturf campaign run by the API. One clue to the API’s involvement is that Energy Citizen’s postal address is the same as the API’s.

The American Petroleum Institute was asked to comment on its nomination for the Angry Mermaid Award but did not respond.