AstroTurf was first called Chemgrass, then renamed when it was installed in the Houston Astrodome in the 1960s.

APIAstroturfing (no capital T), according to Wikipedia, is a term that describes “formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous ‘grassroots’ behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.

It seems fitting, then, that Houston will be the site on Tuesday for the start of what news organizations including Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal, along with environmentalists, have called an “astroturfing” campaign against the House-passed cap-and-trade climate bill. The event will be the first in a series of about 20 rallies planned by a coalition called Energy Citizens, which has been coordinated by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Energy CitizensThe American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), also known as Waxman-Markey for its two House sponsors, would establish a cap-and-trade system that limits greenhouse gas emissions through a system of tradeable emission permits. Narrowly approved in June by the House, it faces an uncertain path in the Senate.

The first of the Energy Citizens rallies is scheduled to take place at lunchtime Tuesday at Verizon Wireless Theater, a downtown Houston concert venue.

“Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and there will be hamburgers and hot dogs for all,” promises the Web site of one member of the Energy Citizens coalition, the conservative organization FreedomWorks, which is chaired by former Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas.

API spokesman Robert Dodge told Texas Climate News that the rallies are not being sponsored solely by his organization.

Nonetheless, an email [pdf] from API President Jack Gerard to CEOs and other top executives of its member companies – a document obtained and released by the environmental organization Greenpeace and confirmed as authentic by Dodge – states that “API is coordinating” the rallies.

The memo further says that API had “identified 11 states with a significant industry presence and 10 other states where we have assets on the ground,” and had “attracted allies from a broad range of interests” for the Energy Citizens effort.

The email, dated “August 2009,” asks the top oil company executives who received it to assign a “central coordinator” for the effort and to tell company leaders of “your strong support for employee participation in the rallies.”

The memo spells out the kind of rallies being envisioned and how they would be carried out:

The measure of success for these events will be the diversity of the participants expressing the same message, as well as turnouts of several hundred attendees. In the 11 states with an industry core, 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. In addition, please include all vendors, suppliers, contractors, retirees and others who have an interest in our success.

To be clear, API will provide the up-front resources to ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups. It also includes coordination with the other interests who share our views on the issues, providing a field coordinator in each state, conducting a comprehensive communications and advocacy activation plan for each state, and serving as  central manager for all events.

The API email was posted last week by Kevin Grandia, managing editor of the Canada-based DeSmogBlog, both on that Web site and on the widely read Web publication Huffington Post. DeSmogBlog, founded by a Canadian public relations executive, describes itself as the world’s top source for “accurate, fact-based information regarding global warming misinformation campaigns.”

Subsequently, Grandia posted another email on DeSmogBlog that illustrated the kind of response Gerard’s email was apparently prompting among API member companies in the Houston area. Grandia told Texas Climate News he had received the second email, addressed to employees of Anadarko Petroleum, from an employee of that company, which is headquartered in The Woodlands, about 30 miles north of downtown Houston.

The email’s text, as posted on DeSmogBlog:

The American Petroleum Institute is sponsoring a Grassroots rally focusing on energy related job security, adverse legislation, and high consumer prices currently under consideration in Washington. Anadarko will have 4 buses available for employees to attend during an extended lunch time. Additional buses may be provided based on the waiting list. Buses will begin loading at 10:15 with (a) 10:40 departure for downtown Houston.

Hot Dogs and sodas will be provided at the venue.

Texas Climate News asked Anadarko for comment about the email, but none was received by the time of this article’s posting.

The Washington-based news service GreenWire, reporting on the Energy Citizens effort in a story also posted on the Web site of the New York Times last week, noted that FreedomWorks, a member of the coalition, has been “in the center of controversy” surrounding sometimes-hostile confrontations at recent congressional town hall meetings on health insurance reform.

API is taking pains to distance itself from association with such tactics.

The rallies “are not confrontations, they’re not town hall meetings, they’re not organized to get people to yell at congressmen,” Dodge said.

Instead, he said, the events are being held so participants can call attention to the House-passed ACES bill’s “detrimental effects on jobs and affordable energy” and to “point out there’s an opportunity when Congress comes back (from its current recess) for the Senate to get it right and produce a far-improved climate bill.”

API does not oppose legislation to address climate change, per se, but does oppose the Waxman-Markey version, he said.

One key objection by API to that measure when it was being debated was that it allocated far fewer of its free permits for emitting carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, to the oil industry than it gave to other CO2 emitters, such as coal-burning electric utilities.

If the rallies’ purpose is to influence senators’ opinion on the issue, Houston would seem to be an unusual location for holding one. Both of Texas’ senators, Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, are already outspoken opponents of the Waxman-Markey bill.

Even so, the Houston rally is one part of a double-barrel, congressional-recess message that API is sending to assert that the ACES bill would economically slam the state.

On Friday, the organization released a study it had commissioned by a consulting firm that projected big job losses and lower household income in Texas if the bill becomes law. (Much controversy surrounds projections of the bill’s costs. In June, the Washington-based news organization ClimateWire published a detailed analysis of the cost issue, constrasting earlier estimates by the consultant that produced API’s Texas study with lower estimates by other economists.)

Since both Hutchison and Cornyn are already on API’s side with regard to the ACES bill, the first Energy Citizens rally is probably being held in Houston, the nation’s oil capital, mainly to get the entire effort off to a successful start, suggested Ken Kramer, Texas director of the Sierra Club.

If that is the case, API members will not be presenting a completely united front, the Washington Post reported Sunday:

“The oil industry seems divided on the issue. Shell Oil and BP America, both members of the American Petroleum Institute, are also members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which has supported a ‘cap and trade’ approach. Spokesmen for both companies said yesterday they would not participate in the ‘Energy Citizen’ rallies.”

[UPDATE, Aug. 18, 2009: On Monday, however, in a story titled “‘Astroturf’ campaign fights climate bill,” American Public Media’s Markeplace program reported that while BP has “spent millions creating a green corporate image,” it has been”working with American Petroleum Institute on rustling up employees for the upcoming (Energy Citizens) protests.” On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that a spokesman said Chevron had “invited Houston employees and retirees to participate in the (Houston) event, and will provide transportation.” The Chronicle also quoted a Shell spokesman as saying that company is “neither encouraging nor discouraging participation in the rally.”]

Meanwhile, Texas environmentalists were making plans to attend the Houston rally late Monday. The Houston-based Citizens League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN) announced:

“Several Texas environmental groups and a number of individuals are planning on attending the rally in support of climate legislation and to set the record straight as far as its benefits for the environment and air quality and its effects on jobs and the economy.”

Just as the rally sponsors had done, CLEAN let its prospective supporters know that “lunch will be served.”

– Bill Dawson

Image Credits: API logo – American Petroleum Institute, Energy Citizens logo – Energy Citizens