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

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A01

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.

BP was asked to provide $100,000 to the campaign, according to several people familiar with the discussions. Company officials told the group that they liked the idea but that it would be a public relations disaster in the midst of the crisis, according to these sources.

Sources also said BP reached out to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group, and encouraged them to provide support for the original idea. Spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said API did not contribute money to the anti-BP project.

Pyle acknowledged that BP was asked for funding in May but said that it was among "dozens and dozens of companies" approached. He said the "war room" is ongoing as a separate effort, while the advocacy arm is handling the project that has featured anti-BP rhetoric.

Pyle, who is president of both groups, said the advocacy group has shifted its message over the past month away from BP to criticism of Democratic energy proposals. "We are now very focused on the policy issues that could affect domestic drilling," he said.

The anti-BP message has not been completely abandoned, however. A fact sheet sent to group supporters last week included a blistering, 19-point attack on BP's safety record, calling the spill "an instance where one foreign-run company, BP, failed to maintain the industry's accepted safety standards."

The advocacy group declined to reveal who is providing the money for the "Save U.S. Energy Jobs" project or how much it plans to spend on its Web site, advertising and other efforts. The project's media campaign is being handled by CarreƱogroup, a Houston public relations firm that has worked for BP rivals ExxonMobil and Shell, according to the company's Web site. Efforts to reach them for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

ExxonMobil has given at least $300,000 in grants to IER over the years, according to tax records. However, ExxonMobil spokeswoman Cynthia Berger White said the company has not given any money to the research group since 2007 and has not provided support for the recent advocacy campaign. A Shell spokesman did not respond to requests for comment by late Tuesday.

Cornyn's NRSC has received $1.3 million from energy companies and their employees, including BP, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. ExxonMobil and its employees have also ranked as the biggest contributors in recent cycles to Cornyn's personal campaign accounts, records show.

Cornyn spokesman Charles Chamberlayne said the Texas senator is appearing at Wednesday's event in support of its pro-jobs message and against the Obama administration's temporary drilling moratorium. He said that Cornyn was unaware of the group's anti-BP rhetoric but added that the senator has criticized BP's spill response.

"What Senator Cornyn is in support of is jobs in the Gulf Coast and against a moratorium," Chamberlayne said. "That's where he's with them."

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