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Drilling for Influence: API Unshaken by 2012 Elections

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Gerard, the American Petroleum Institute president, casts the election as a clear win, calling Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy an endorsement of oil and gas.

“Too many people try to force understanding and messaging without understanding that you need to go to where the people are,” Gerard said in an interview at the API’s Washington headquarters, where a spacious foyer is decorated with supersized oil tanker models and wall panels of faux layered rock evoking Pennsylvania shale. “[One] of the things we’ve changed about the way we do our work at API is, we’re going to the people. The Congress is a lagging indicator. The Congress responds to the voters.”

API has 700,000 “energy citizens” in its database of supporters and some 500 backers ready to attend events and town hall meetings in each congressional district, the trade group’s organizers say. API staged 38 Vote4Energy events in 19 states last year. Not surprisingly, its Vote4Energy ads tended to run in battleground states.

Environmental activists scoff at the notion that API has genuine grass-roots support, and Greenpeace USA spoofed the Vote4Energy campaign in its own satirical video. Four years ago, Greenpeace made much of a leaked memo in which Gerard called on API member executives to help the trade group “put a human face” on its Energy Citizen campaign.

“They would love to have popular support, but in truth nobody likes oil companies — except for maybe the people who work for them and their families,” Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies said.

But that’s a pretty big number, API officials like to point out. The industry fueled 9.2 million jobs and pumped $545 billion into the American economy in 2011, a new glossy API booklet boasts. And even Davies acknowledged that, politically, the oil and gas industry is well-positioned.

“I would argue that, by and large, to my consternation, the oil industry is doing pretty well right now,” he said.

To be sure, Obama pledged to “respond to the threat of climate change” in his inaugural address, increasing pressure on the administration to reject the long-contested Keystone XL oil pipeline. Approval of the pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas, is a leading API priority. Devastating droughts and storms, particularly Superstorm Sandy, have also stirred climate concerns on Capitol Hill.

Proposals to end what Democrats call industry “tax breaks” — a term the API rejects in favor of “preferential tax treatment” — have a way of creeping into budget negotiations. The group is engaged in an ongoing regulatory and legal fight with the EPA over the agency’s biofuels standards. The API has also taken steps to respond to a growing campus-based movement of students asking university endowments to divest from fossil fuel companies.

But Gerard asserts buoyantly that “energy won the election.” The proof? Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is a tacit endorsement of oil and gas. Environmentalists cast Obama’s energy talking points in the same light.

“Even though they lost the election, they won in the rhetorical space, because they had the president saying their words on the campaign trail,” Davies said, referring to the API. “And now they’re going to hold him to those words.”

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