LOBBYING:

Oil-industry group hires new leader for media team

As it works to reshape the oil industry's image, American Petroleum Institute's media shop has nabbed a former spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Eric Wohlschlegel started work yesterday as API's director of media relations. Running the team that talks to reporters, Wohlschlegel said he is focused on communicating the oil and natural gas industry's importance. It is the latest move as trade group CEO Jack Gerard reorganizes API's work force.

"We're basically under new leadership at API," Wohlschlegel said. "This is sort of getting all hands on deck towards that goal.

"It's obvious that he's assembling a new team and sort of focusing his assets with a very clear goal of advocacy and communications on behalf of the industry," Wohlschlegel said of Gerard's plan.

Wohlschlegel said his strategy is to "communicate to the general public how critical the oil and gas industry is to our economy and to jobs in America."

Wohlschlegel's recruitment marks API's latest hire from the U.S. Chamber, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, D.C., and one with strong ties to the oil and natural gas industry. API in April recruited Linda Rozett, who previously worked as communications director for the Friends of Fred Thompson organization and as senior vice president of communications for the Chamber (Greenwire, April 16). Rozett is in charge of all communications.

Earlier this year, API nabbed Deryck Spooner, who ran the Nature Conservancy's push to spur legislative action on climate change (Greenwire, Feb. 2). Spooner now heads API's grass-roots activism arm. He previously ran campaigns for labor group AFL-CIO and abortion rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America.

API in December cut 15 percent of its work force, but Gerard said at the time that he planned to bring on new hires to fill gaps. Gerard said that the organization 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" (E&ENews PM, Dec. 11, 2009).

Before working at the Chamber, Wohlschlegel worked at a small public relations firm, was the deputy press secretary at the House Energy and Commerce Committee under then-Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.), and worked for the National Petroleum Refiners Association.

API clearly is seeking out "big guns," as it works to reshape its message, said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy project at Public Citizen.

"It seems that API is going on a new recruiting spree; they are clearly assembling an impressive team to go on the offensive," Slocum said.

Key victories on Hill

The work force restructuring is helping API achieve big wins in Congress, Slocum said. The oil and natural gas industry last month "handily beat back," Slocum said, a measure that would have repealed $35 billion worth of tax breaks for oil and gas producers over the next decade. The amendment would have cut oil and gas tax breaks related to amortization, depletion of oil wells and domestic production income(E&E Daily, June 16).

While the petroleum industry is under pressure because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Slocum said, "they're still able to muster an awfully lot of support" within Congress.

API and the oil industry over the past year changed its approach toward the push for climate legislation in Congress, Slocum said. The industry largely opposed the House bill that passed in June 2009. That bill, H.R. 2454, capped carbon emissions and set up a program for buying and selling pollution permits. While it gave away a large number of free allowances to utilities and industries that rely on energy, it allocated almost none to oil refiners. The oil industry condemned that policy, calling it a redistribution of wealth.

The oil industry then struck a deal with lead Senate Democrats as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) crafted their climate bill, said Slocum, who said that he was part of an April conference call where Kerry talked about that arrangement. The industry agreed not to condemn the legislation and Kerry's "American Power Act" set up a special emissions trading program for the oil industry.

"That was part of the nonaggression pact that was essentially signed," Slocum said.

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