A few environmental groups and other left-wing organizations launched aggressive attacks today aimed at discrediting the "Energy Citizens" campaign created to pressure the Senate to change House-passed climate legislation.
Energy Citizens is organized by the American Petroleum Institute, along with groups such as FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform. That campaign began this week with a rally in Houston.
And while environmentalists and their allies have their own campaigns to push for passage of climate legislation, the groups are taking aim at the industry-backed effort, describing it as an artificial effort to scuttle legislation that would be detrimental to the companies' bottom line.
Today, a coalition of military veterans, as part of an effort organized by the Sierra Club, denounced Energy Citizens as a distortion of the current debate.
"The people behind this are the oil industry, and it's really disheartening to see how the front group is watering down any meaningful debate," said Alex Cornell du Houx, a veteran and campaign coordinator for the group Operation Free, told reporters this afternoon.
The veterans groups said they intend to take their message to Capitol Hill after Labor Day, informing lawmakers of the importance of weaning the United States from foreign oil.
The Sierra Club has been particularly active in going after the industry groups and their grass-roots efforts to influence the legislation. But several other advocacy groups have also jumped into the fray.
Public Citizen Texas today started circulating information on how its members were blocked from attending the Energy Citizens rally in Houston. The group claims the rally was primarily attended by employees of energy companies.
Environmentalists have been claiming in recent days that such efforts are common in the industry-initiated grass-roots campaigns, which attempt to create the appearance of public support for their position through artificial means.
"Energy Citizens is not a grass-roots organization; they are an AstroTurf organization funded by groups that are trying to kill green jobs legislation and the green jobs agenda," said Eric Maltzer, an environmental strategist involved in the effort.
As exhibit A, critics of the API effort are pointing to an e-mail from the trade group's president and CEO, Jack Gerard, to member companies. The e-mail, obtained by Greenpeace and verified as legitimate by API, describes the strategy behind the rallies and how API hoped to drive strong turnout.
"The objective of these rallies is to put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy 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," Gerard writes in the e-mail.
The e-mail also reveals the message of higher fuel prices API wants to push.
Gerard in his e-mail writes of a Harris Interactive poll that API funded that "demonstrates that our message on Waxman-Markey-like legislation work extremely well and are very persuasive with the general public and policy influentials" -- referencing the House energy and climate bill from Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "After hearing that Waxman-Markey-like legislation could increase the costs of gasoline to around $4 a gallon ... these audiences changed their opinions on the bill significantly."
Greenpeace accuses API of fudging the facts.
Greenpeace, API spar
Greenpeace's U.S. executive director, Phil Radford, challenges the $4-per-gallon claim in a letter to Gerard, saying that the Heritage report cited as the source of the $4-per-gallon price "was funded by ExxonMobil," and that the report also concluded that the $4-per-gallon price would occur "25 years from now."
The Gerard e-mail also shows the push to get people to the rallies.
"The measure of success for these events will be the diversity of the participants expressing the same message, as well as the turnouts of several hundred attendees," Gerard wrote. "Our member company local leadership -- including your facility manager's commitment to provide significant attendance -- is essential to achieving the participation level that senators cannot ignore."
Greenpeace spokesman Michael Crocker said Gerard's e-mail "is as forceful as possible to encourage employers to get their employees and retired employees and family members out there."
No employees of the companies that are part of API are required to go to any of the rallies, said Cathy Landry, API spokeswoman. "This was not mandatory. They were not coerced to come," she said. "They wanted to be there."
The Houston rally this week had more than 3,000 people, Landry said. Some people at the recent Houston rally were bused in, she said, but others were not.
"These are real people. These are citizens who have real concerns about the issue," Landry said. "To dismiss them because they work for an energy company seems rather unfair."
The rallies are not town halls, and members of Congress are not present, she said. People at the rallies hear from speakers, sign petitions and get information on how to contact Congress members.
Asked about the Public Citizen member who was forced to leave the Houston rally, Landry said there was one person who claimed to be a member of the media but lacked any identification. That person was asked to leave. But the rallies were open, she said, and at least 20 other credentialed media members attended.
API wants the Senate to address parts of the House bill that API member companies believe will hurt the industry and drive up fuel costs, Landry said. The House bill in the early years of a cap-and-trade program would give away 85 percent of the allowances companies would otherwise have to buy to cover carbon dioxide emissions. The largest share of those free allowances -- 35 percent -- would go to utilities. Oil refiners, in comparison, would get 2 percent for two years.
Landry said API is not opposed to cap and trade for greenhouse gas emissions.
Crocker with Greenpeace called that "spin" and said the rallies are about stopping climate legislation.
"API has a long history of opposing any meaningful legislation on global warming," Crocker said.
Greenpeace is also lashing out against API in other ways.
On Tuesday, Greenpeace activists targeted API headquarters in Washington, D.C. At about 8 a.m., they rolled out a square of AstroTurf that they topped with signs saying, "Climate Fraud Funded by Big Oil," with signs with the logos of BP, Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp.
The stunt lasted only a few minutes, long enough for Greenpeace to take a photo that the group is using as part of its campaign to question the legitimacy of the rallies.