HOUSTON — BATTERED by the environmental lobby, the United States oil industry is planning a public-relations counterattack.The annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute (API), which drew 2,000 oilmen to Houston this week, gave a foretaste. Speakers questioned the motives and political orientation of the environmental lobby. They appealed to the public's concern over the economy by pointing out that the high costs of environmental regulation will be borne by consumers, eliminate jobs, and weaken the nation's competitiveness. "Some proposals make sense, and some don't," API president Charles DiBona says. "But they all add to society's financial burden." Limits on drilling in the US boost demand for imported oil, which now accounts for 65 percent of the US trade deficit. Oil executives also argued that the public has been misled about some environmental risks. By almost every measure the nation's environment is getting better, yet the public has a different impression, Michael Boskin, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, told the meeting. Refiners are being told to spend billions of dollars to make cleaner-burning gasoline. Yet new cars aren't helped by the fuel, and older ones are disappearing from the roads, says Alfred DeCrane, chairman of Texaco Inc. Emissions from a 1992 model car driven 6,000 miles are less than from a can of oil-based housepaint, he adds.
Gaining sympathetic ear Outgoing API chairman Allen Murray, who is also chairman of Mobil Corporation, says river runoff and municipal discharges cause more marine pollution than do offshore drilling and oil production. "Is anybody listening?" he wonders. To gain the public's ear, an API committee is thrashing out a PR strategy that can succeed where previous efforts have failed, says C. J. Silas, the chairman of Phillips Petroleum Company and the API's newly elected chairman. The API is the standard-bearer in Washington for the major US oil companies. Crucial to the blitz will be identification and enlistment of sympathetic third parties in academia and elsewhere who have credibility that the industry lacks, Mr. Silas says. Surveys have shown that buying gasoline is one of the public's least enjoyable transactions: People view it as a tax they must pay to oil companies so they can drive cars. People don't even like the word "oil," Silas says. And though the Gulf war is less than a year old, the public is more concerned about the environment than security of oil supply. Certain environmental organizations are exploiting public concern, numerous oil executives claim. Discrediting those groups "has to be" part of the oil industry's campaign, Silas says. Oil industry executives say that environmentalists can't afford to negotiate a compromise over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska because that issue has generated more of their contributions than any other. The environmental lobby raised $360 million in 1990 alone, Silas says. "They need a crisis," he adds. Silas and other executives say the oil industry quarrels only with some environmental groups, but no one was ready to name names. However, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming, co-author of the major energy legislation that was defeated last month, did some finger-pointing that included the oil industry.
Friendly to foes? Addressing the API conference, Senator Wallop noticed little difference in the agendas of "the most radical environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace" and "so-called mainstream environmental groups." Yet the latter still receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the oil industry, he marveled. For instance, five major US oil companies gave "generously" in 1989 to the National Audubon Society, which opposes drilling in ANWR. Wallop cited similar examples involving the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the Conservation Foundation (now merged with the WWF), Inform, and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. "My friends, these groups' allegiance has not been bought, but their activities have been paid for," Wallop chided.