BP's fight against energy nonprofit highlights murky world of advocacy-for-hire

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has surpassed the size of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill and the Exxon Valdez. Here are some other historical spills.
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, a conservative nonprofit group called the Institute for Energy Research asked BP to contribute $100,000 for a media campaign it was launching in defense of the oil industry.

Although BP took a pass, the group's advocacy arm went ahead with a campaign -- only instead of defending BP, it vilified the company as a "safety outlier" in an otherwise safe industry. The campaign's Web site features dozens of images of the burning rig, oil-smeared birds and other environmental devastation from the spill.

"BP is a victim of its own carelessness," the group's president, Thomas Pyle, wrote as part of the campaign's kickoff in early July. "The rest of us should not be."

To backers of BP who were familiar with the discussions and spoke on the condition of anonymity, it seemed an awful lot like a shakedown. The initial proposal contained no criticism of the British oil giant or its handling of the spill. A BP spokesman declined to comment.

But Pyle, previously an oil-industry lobbyist and an aide to former congressman and Texas Republican Tom DeLay, said the anti-BP message was part of a separate campaign and was not intended as retaliation. "A lot of people were trying to lump the industry together as one cohesive unit," Pyle said in an interview. "Our point was to not judge the whole industry by one incident and one actor."

(Photos: Oil spills through history)

The case illustrates the murky world of advocacy-for-hire in Washington, where ideological groups wage stealth messaging campaigns with little disclosure of their funding or possible motives. Such arrangements rarely come to light since most advocacy groups are organized as nonprofits that do not have to disclose details about their donors.

In another case last year, the head of the American Conservative Union, a prominent Washington advocacy group, came under fire for siding with UPS in a labor battle after rival FedEx declined a request to fund the group.

The BP dispute also underscores the tensions that have flared between factions of the oil and gas industry, as Congress has debated whether to enact new drilling restrictions. The anti-BP effort, for example, is supported by the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, which has sought to emphasize the risks of the deepwater wells that are a major part of BP's business.

The campaign operates under the name "Save U.S. Energy Jobs," which is described as a project of the American Energy Alliance, the advocacy arm of IER.

The effort includes a multimedia Web site, http://www.saveusenergyjobs.com, featuring videos, news releases, polls and other trademarks of advocacy campaigns, plus a blog and a Facebook page for social-media outreach. The group is flying in about 50 oil-industry employees to Washington for a Wednesday rally to be headlined by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

A copy of the initial campaign pitch, which was obtained by The Washington Post, laid out plans for a $570,000 "energy rapid response team" to counter criticism from "anti-energy groups" attempting to "politicize the Gulf Spill." The two-page outline proposed a "campaign-style war room" to "monitor and challenge any anti-energy rhetoric in the blogosphere, in newspapers and on television." There's no mention of BP and its safety record.

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