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“Astroturf Activism”: Leaked Memo Reveals Oil Industry Effort to Stage Rallies Against Climate Legislation

A leaked memo reveals the American Petroleum Institute is asking oil companies to recruit employees, retirees and contractors to take part in rallies against climate change legislation. We speak with Greenpeace USA research director Kert Davies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The oil industry appears to be turning to the tactics of right-wing opponents to healthcare reform in order to derail federal climate change legislation. In a leaked memo obtained by Greenpeace, the American Petroleum Institute asked member oil companies to help recruit employees, retirees and contractors to participate in anti-climate bill rallies being held in twenty-two cities across the country this month.

The leaked internal email from American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard says it’s organizing the so-called Energy Citizens rallies to, quote, “put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy” and calls on member companies to achieve a, quote, “participation level Senators cannot ignore.” It lists venues in states with, quote, “significant industry presence” and “assets on the ground.”

The first few rallies were held this week in Houston, Texas; Roswell, New Mexico; and Greensboro, North Carolina. Oil companies bused in an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 employees and retirees to the lunchtime event in Houston on Wednesday. The watchdog group Public Citizen said ordinary citizens were barred from the Houston rally and described it as a, quote, “company picnic.”

AMY GOODMAN: Today, the American Petroleum Institute is holding Energy Citizens rallies in Lima, Ohio; Farmington, New Mexico. Upcoming rallies will be held in Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; Elkhart, Indiana; Greeley, Colorado; St. Louis; Tampa, Florida; Bismarck, North Dakota; Anchorage; Greenville, Colorado; Springfield, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Huron, South Dakota.

Well, Greenpeace calls this attempt to create a false appearance of a grassroots movement against the climate bill an “astroturf” campaign. On Wednesday, they laid real Astroturf in front of the Washington, DC headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute and erected a sign that read ”CLIMATE FRAUD, FUNDED BY BIG OIL.”

For more, we’re joined from Washington, DC by Kert Davies, the research director of Greenpeace USA.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kert. Start off by talking about how you got a hold of this memo.

KERT DAVIES: It was sent to us from a source that we’ve been working with for a long time, sent to him by a colleague who got it from a disgruntled recipient of the email. By the time we got it, it had been scrubbed of its sort of pedigree, so we wrote a letter to the API asking for confirmation that this was a real email. They very quickly confirmed it to reporters, so it’s no longer in question.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Kert, how often has this happened in the past that the oil industry has engaged in this kind of direct organizing of their employees on behalf of policies or on behalf or against legislation?

KERT DAVIES: Greenpeace has been watching the oil industry for twenty-plus years trying to undermine climate progress in a number of ways. We’ve never seen this before. This is because the momentum is very high right now. The Waxman-Markey bill, of course, passed the House. There’s a push towards Copenhagen, a strong chance that there will be international law that is — you know, if global warming is an inconvenient truth for some of us, it’s a big problem for the oil industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Kert Davies, the letter that you wrote to the American Petroleum Institute, lay out your points. And how did they respond?

KERT DAVIES: They haven’t responded.

But we made the point that they were lying to people by using facts and figures in these — in this memo and in their advertisements to deceive people about the economic impacts of pending climate legislation. They said that it would cause $4 gasoline. Of course, we remember $4 gasoline; people don’t like that. But it actually — the study they drew from was from the Heritage Institute, funded by Exxon, and said that we’d have $4 gasoline by 2035. So they’re using fear tactics.

They’re using the jobs versus environment, the same old saw. And they’re attacking — they’re scaring people who work in the energy industry. Of course, the green energy industry doesn’t have this many employees to roll out on buses, and the oil industry literally is sending people on company time. Now, we also ask that the companies acknowledge that they were paying for this, that individual companies who are in the American Petroleum Institute, the big oil companies, acknowledge that they had designed this program and were participating. Shell Oil is the only company who has said, “We are not sending our employees to this.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, how legal is this for an employer, in essence, to use their power as an employer to call on their subordinates to come out to these political rallies?

KERT DAVIES: I’ve asked a couple labor experts about that, and apparently it would be very illegal if a union was doing it. But for a company to do it on company time, it’s essentially like a picnic. We don’t know the real letter of the law there, but it is a good question.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few weeks ago, we had Congress member Henry Waxman on the broadcast, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It had just been after they passed in that committee the Waxman-Markey bill. We asked him to address criticism that the climate bill had been weakened by lobbying from the oil and coal industries.

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Most of the environmental groups supported what we were doing, because what we did was guarantee the reductions in carbon.

    Now, we did it in a way to draw a broad coalition of support for it. We can’t pass a bill just with environmental votes, so we needed to get support from people who were concerned about industry. And we said we’re going to allow a transition, during which we’re going to get the carbon reductions, but we’re going to do it in a way that is the least costly.

    So, for example, coal, which is the leading source of carbon emissions, needs to be changed or replaced. But in the meantime, we’ll allow coal to be burned, as long as the utilities get the reductions in carbon.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, California Congress member Waxman. Kert Davies, your response?

KERT DAVIES: Well, you can tell by the tangled response exactly how difficult it was to get this legislation passed, and they had to appease many special interests and heaps of dirty energy lobbyists that were crowding the doorways in Congress.

So, who didn’t get paid, who didn’t get their due, was the oil industry. The coal industry got pretty much everything they asked for; the oil industry did not. And they were actually chided for that by the American Enterprise Institute.

So I think what this campaign reveals is both a larger political strategy to undo Obama’s key — you know, key planks of his platform, his key campaigns, but it also is a softening of the Senate, so when they come back in September and they’ve heard about it in the field, those oil companies can go back in and say, “Now, about us?”

These cities, by the way, are chosen very carefully. It’s not a random selection. These are — we’ve analyzed it, and these are the states and the local districts of congressmen who were maybe purple districts, and they were swing votes in the ACES, in the passage of the Waxman bill, and then states of senators that are key votes in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: By the way, I want to correct my pronunciation, it’s Lima, Ohio, not “Leema,” one of the places where these rallies are planned. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Kert, what do you see right now as the prospects in the Senate? And, of course, if they are trying to target some of the congressmen, they’re also thinking in terms of any conference bill that would come out of negotiations between the House and the Senate over a final version of a bill, if it passes the Senate.

KERT DAVIES: I have to be clear that Greenpeace is not supporting the bill through the Senate. We think it’s in a very weakened form because of dirty energy lobbyists that have not been chased out of Washington. So we are not working to strengthen the bill for passage. We don’t think that it can be strengthened enough to solve climate change, frankly. It’s not following the scientific guidance that has been given us, and its prospects for actually helping the problem are slim.

It has some good provisions in it, but it cannot be taken down by the right-wing extremists in this country who are bent on doing nothing about climate change. So we hope there’s a vigorous debate. I think it’s going to be overshadowed by healthcare and all the other attacks on the President’s agenda, and the Senate’s pretty much up against it. But news varies day to day whether they’re going to push this forward or not.

AMY GOODMAN: This information, the companies trying to get out their workers to protest the climate bill in these last weeks of the congressional recess, comes after the Times exposed a public relations firm hired by the pro-coal industry group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, recently sent out at least fifty-eight letters opposing new climate laws to members of Congress. An investigation by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming found a total of thirteen letters sent by the firm Bonner & Associates were forgeries. The committee is currently investigating another forty-five that were determined to be fake. The letters purported to be from groups like the NAACP and Latino groups, as well. Kert Davies, what do you know about this?

KERT DAVIES: Key point. This is not the American Petroleum Institute alone. So, big coal, who played nice, who played white hat with the Waxman-Markey team and got what they wanted in the bill, is also attacking the bill, going at it from all sides. So, they actually would love to defeat the bill in the end, but they’d love to appear to be playing nice.

That campaign is so underhanded and despicable, to pose as the NAACP and send a letter to a congressman saying you oppose a piece of legislation. Imagine if Greenpeace sent a letter posing as the American Petroleum Institute supporting legislation. It may be mail fraud. It may be — there are a number of laws that may have been broken here. And I think the truth is yet to be known on the extent of it and who was behind it.

We know that the corporations who were behind the ACCCE campaign are high-powered utilities, railroads, coal companies, the Chamber of Commerce, other folks who are also involved in these API rallies. The API rallies includes the National Association of Manufacturers, the Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and numerous other companies. The public needs to hold these companies accountable. The trade associations and these fake front groups allow the companies to hide. And we need to reveal the truth and hold the companies accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is all coming after the healthcare protests at the town hall meetings and the UnitedHealthcare, one of the largest health insurance industry, letters that just came out to their employees to get out to the protests, as well, in that case, around the issue of health insurance reform.

KERT DAVIES: I frankly think the energy folks are jealous of all the attention that healthcare is getting. And, in fact, in some cases, it’s the same exact groups doing it. Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups that’s been exposed, is doing both attacks on cap-and-trade and attacks on healthcare, funded by Koch Industries — K-O-C-H, not Coca-Cola — a big oil company, a private oil company. So this is a coordinated attack. And as you know, it’s a bigger — it’s bigger than these issues. It’s an attack on Obama’s power base. So, if people get that and there is an inspiration to do something about it, an uprising will happen.

Yesterday, in fact, Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans, in a new group called Operation Free, a group dedicated to getting us off of oil, getting us off — unaddicted to oil, protested the API astroturf campaign as a cynical effort to keep us addicted to oil. And they held an event here in DC, protesting loudly that this was an attack on democracy, frankly, that we should — and on freedom, that we should get off of oil, stop sending our young men and women over to fight oil wars.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kert Davies, do you see this leading into Copenhagen, into the renegotiation of Kyoto?

KERT DAVIES: I mean, that’s the key point, is that the momentum and the action by the United States now is a keystone to getting something done in Copenhagen in December, when the climate treaty will be negotiated. The world is watching the US, and the oil industry and the coal industry know this, as well. They know that if they can derail action even slightly by the US Senate, by the Congress, they take Obama’s legs out, and he cannot negotiate a treaty as well. We’re calling on Obama to step above that and to move past all this and be a leader and move to what he knows is the right thing to do in Copenhagen, in spite of all of this attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Last thing, information just coming out — you work on the issue of hydrofluorocarbons. Scientists say chemicals that helped solve the last global environmental crisis, the hole in the ozone layer, are actually making the current one worse.


AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, your explanation of this?

KERT DAVIES: This is the stuff that’s in your refrigerator, in your car, that keeps your beer cold and keeps your food cold in your fridge and keeps your warm — your house comfortable. When it’s released into the atmosphere, it’s thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s currently vastly unregulated, because it was left behind by the ozone treaty. It was actually the anointed replacement for the old freon gases. Now, we’re finally getting attention to it, and we hope that there is a cooperative effort between the ozone treaty, the Montreal Protocol, and the Kyoto-Copenhagen process, to quickly phase out these chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Kert Davies, I want to thank you for being with us, research director for Greenpeace USA. We’ll link to all the letters, the American Petroleum Institute letter, your letter to the American Petroleum Institute, and much more

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