The oil industry's biggest trade group has nabbed one of the environmental community's top grass-roots organizers as it ramps up efforts to build a network of citizen lobbyists.
Deryck Spooner, who ran Nature Conservancy's push to spur legislative action on climate change, will now head American Petroleum Institute's grass-roots activism arm. The hiring move sends a nervous flutter through environmental groups. By recruiting Spooner, green groups said, API adds someone with both credibility and deep knowledge of grass-roots strategy. Spooner previously ran campaigns for labor group AFL-CIO and abortion rights organization NARAL.
"He's a big dog," said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at watchdog group Public Citizen. "It gives API somebody with enormous grass-roots experience running major campaigns. This indicates that API is taking their grass-roots strategy in a very serious direction."
The move comes two months after the trade group cut 15 percent of its staff and President Jack Gerard said API had "not been as effective as we could be in educating public officials or the public about the critical role of oil and gas in our economy. ... You will see us evolve into a more nimble, more aggressive" organization. "We're going to be aggressive in our outreach to educate the public," he said (E&ENews PM, Dec. 11, 2009).
Hiring Spooner is part of Gerard's strategy to expand grass-roots activism, API spokeswoman Cathy Landry said, adding, "Jack's vision is to mobilize the 9.2 million people whose jobs rely on the oil and gas industry. We do plan to step that up."
API's community activism last year sparked controversy, as environmental critics accused the trade group of steering employees to rallies aimed at killing climate legislation. API said the rallies allowed both employees and other citizens to voice concerns that climate legislation would raise energy prices and affect jobs.
Spooner, 42, doesn't see the move from Nature Conservancy to API as that big of a jump.
"I have worked for vastly different organizations throughout my career," Spooner said. "The bottom line is it's all about advocacy, that's what I'm passionate about. Mobilizing and organizing people to influence the public process and public policy is what I truly love to do."
"At the end of the day, I don't necessarily believe that the views of [the Nature Conservancy] and API are incompatible," Spooner added. API members use technology "to ensure that the places that they drill are not impacted," Spooner said, while the Nature Conservancy uses a scientific approach in deciding where to protect land and water. API members, he said, "don't just want to drill anywhere for drilling's sake. There's a lot of science going into where they drill."
The Nature Conservancy's director of U.S. climate policy, Eric Haxthausen, said in an e-mail that Spooner "left the Nature Conservancy on good terms and we wish him well." Haxthausen did not respond to a question about whether the goals of the Nature Conservancy conflict with those of API. Nature Conservancy, which in terms of assets is the biggest environmental group in the United States, is considered one of the more politically conservative green groups. It allows corporate sponsorships and has permitted oil and gas drilling on some of the land it holds in trust.
Other environmental activists, however, characterized the missions of API and most green groups as far apart.
"There's no useful contribution that the American Petroleum Institute is making to forwarding our energy economy," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "They've been at the center of campaigns to derail climate progress for 20 years."
Ramping up grass-roots efforts with Spooner shows API believes that's what's necessary to achieve its goals, he said.
"They know that ultimately it's going to come down to a grass-roots toe-to-toe battle on energy policy," Davies said. And having Spooner at API gives the oil trade group new advantages, he said, including information about environmental group strategies.
"That's a little unnerving," Davis said. "That's not something that we really want to take place."
Spooner isn't saying what he has planned for API just yet, but in an e-mailed biography, he described his role as coordinating API's "efforts to develop, mobilize and sustain a political infrastructure of individuals, groups, and coalitions to advance API's priority advocacy issues with elected officials." He also said he knows "how to build relationships with influential individuals, and what it takes to win the support of policy makers and opinion leaders of public policy goals."
He jumped to API in part, Spooner said, because Gerard is committed to political advocacy. Because Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit organization, Spooner said, he was limited in how much he could engage political activism. He worked mostly with local chapters and guided trustees to seek legislative action. At API, he said, he can create a grass-roots network of employees, contractors and the public.
With his campaign experience, Slocum said, Spooner is likely to help API prioritize members of Congress the group wants to influence, and then mobilize activism in those lawmakers' districts and states.
"I would imagine with everything that's at stake, they're going to have a multiyear strategy," Slocum said. "It's a much more surgical strike than just running ads on TV."
Oil worker's son
Spooner learned activism early, growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, where as a child he attended many rallies with his parents and grandfather.
"It takes the process of voting and engagement to another level," Spooner said. "That's where I got a lot of my passion."
He's also the son of an engineer who worked for Amoco, an oil company that later became part of BP PLC. Spooner went out to oil rigs with his father.
"It's part of who I am, too," Spooner said.
Spooner worked for NARAL and then AFL-CIO, where he ran the campaigns for candidates the groups had decided to back, as well as helped mobilize voters who would support those candidates. While in his role at NARAL in 2002, Spooner made $500 in campaign contributions to the Friends of Al Gore's political action committee.
He moved to Nature Conservancy in 2007 and focused on global warming, which Spooner described as "one of the most important issues of our time."
He doesn't see his position at API as abandoning that principle.
"Engaging many voices in the solution to climate change is the only way to guarantee success," Spooner said. "Coming to API gives me the opportunity to further that conversation."
Spooner pointed to U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition pushing for congressional action on climate change, as an example of a group that united environmental groups and oil companies including BP and ConocoPhillips. BP and ConocoPhillips left U.S. CAP last week, however, saying that climate legislation has failed to recognize the importance of natural gas and disadvantaged oil and gas companies compared with coal interests.
"What you had was a really good conversation there because you had both businesses and environmental groups working together," Spooner said. "What happened is that the issue got politicized. But I think again once you bring as many voices into the solution and everyone has opportunity to be equal in the discussion ... then you'll have the opportunity to take the issue to another level."
While Davies with Greenpeace called API a roadblock to good climate policy, Spooner rejected that the trade group worked to keep climate legislation from moving forward.
"How is that possible when you have members of API being on U.S. CAP?" Spooner said. "The principles U.S. CAP came up with [were] the principles that were adopted by Congress at some level." (The House-passed climate bill largely used a blueprint from U.S. CAP.)
When asked about API's opposition to major elements of climate legislation, Spooner said that "what you have is a very diverse organization here with multiple different issues. API is an association that ... sort of helps wade through those multiple different issues. What API wants is a really good climate bill at the end of the day," Spooner added.
More 'Energy Citizens'?
While Spooner is still evaluating the best ways to motivate grass-roots action on API's goals, he said that his central principle is education.
"You've got to make people feel they are part of something," Spooner said. "When you look at what's going on right now in America, energy security is one of the biggest things." He cited API's statistics that oil and gas companies are tied to 7.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product and 9.2 million American jobs.
"It's a real good opportunity to have a conversation, a dialogue with Americans and move them to the next level to decide to put pressure on public policy," Spooner said, adding "How do I do it? Have a conversation."
API last summer belonged to a coalition that organized and ran a grass-roots effort called Energy Citizens. It followed passage of the House climate bill and featured those rallies where oil company workers and other people came to talk about their concerns. FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform also belonged to the coalition behind the campaign.
"That will be something Deryck will be looking at in the future," Landry said, adding, "that will be one of the things in his portfolio."
Environmental groups criticized Energy Citizens as fake grass roots, or "AstroTurf." Most of the rallies were organized by registered lobbyists working on behalf of API and other energy interests (E&ENews PM, Aug. 21, 2009). API has said that the rallies represented the views of much of the public regardless of who served as organizers.
The mission of Energy Citizens last summer was to stop momentum on the climate bill that passed the House in June, Greenpeace's Davies said.
Spooner sees the goal of such rallies differently.
"When you look at Energy Citizens, it's a coalition of Americans. We have real voices that really care about the energy issue," Spooner said. "To call it AstroTurf, that's again, politicizing it. These are real people; these are real Americans who really care about the issue."