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Tom Matzzie Headshot

Alarming Gains for Big Oil Need a Response

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News that President Bush is teaming up with the oil companies to push for a big fight over offshore drilling shouldn't surprise anybody. This is a fight that the oil companies and Republicans have been preparing for. Bush needs to win a fight both to boost himself and John McCain. They figure a fight over high gas prices is their best bet and they could be right. But it is a high stakes gamble -- teaming up with oil companies and Bush is something we can turn into a disaster for McCain and the GOP.

Oil companies are among the least popular corporations in America. They are right up there with banks, insurance companies and airlines as corporations that frustrate everybody. The rising cost of gas hasn't made them more popular.

In response, these companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising that has nothing to do with selling gas. Instead they portray themselves as good corporate citizens who are investing in solar and wind-power research. They are trying to re-brand themselves as 21st-century "energy companies" instead of the heirs of Valdez and ExxonMobil.

Now, polling is beginning to show that a rising share of the public is ready to drill, drill, drill -- threatening to destroy precious and unique wildlife areas like the Arctic refuge and create more oil spills along the Gulf coasts. Worse, drilling is a distraction from real changes like massive investments in wind and solar power.

In February, Pew asked the public in a poll whether they favor drilling in the Arctic refuge. At that time 42 percent favored and 50 percent opposed. Now, in July, 50 percent favor drilling and only 43 percent oppose. That's a 12-point change since the February survey and a 28-point swing since a March 2002 Gallup poll (where 35 percent favored and 56 percent opposed).

The shift is something to be concerned about -- progressives are losing ground with the public on drilling. These are alarming gains in sympathy for the plans of Big Oil.

This change isn't because the idea has gotten better -- Arctic drilling might cut gas prices by a mere 4 cents a decade from now. It is because of a sophisticated communications campaign by the oil companies and the Republican Party that is mostly met with silence by the other side -- by our side.

To date the environmental movement hasn't mustered the campaign to push back against the oil companies. And, a populist anti-oil effort hasn't come together despite the fledgling attempts by truckers protesting high fuel prices or a war that, in the words of Alan Greenspan and others, was certainly in part about oil. The failure of the green groups certainly calls into question the value of a billion dollars of infrastructure that can't kick ass when it needs to.

The alternative messaging that is emerging needs focus and a big echo chamber from progressive allies. Terms like SPRO need to be discarded.

A large emergency campaign is needed to beat back Big Oil. The campaign should be as much about the economy as it is about conservation and clean energy. High gas prices are the wind filling the sails of the drilling fanatics. This is the theme the Republicans are tapping into today. It shouldn't be ignored.

The first task for this effort would be to create a message-frame that attaches all of the negatives of Big Oil companies to the drilling proposals under consideration. These efforts should be framed as "the oil company plan." The "oil company plan" has four parts: more oil drilling, higher gas prices, no new energy sources and wars in the Middle East to protect oil. If you can't talk about war and economic challenges as part of the problem with oil than you aren't getting the job done.

Another key element of the effort would be to propose our own alternative energy plan as big as anything else out there. The time is now for a big hairy audacious goal.

Ironically one of the voices who has emerged to critique our addiction to oil has been T. Boone Pickens -- the iconic Texas oilman and stalwart conservative. His $58 million advertising campaign features his direct-to-camera testimonial saying, "As an oilman, I know we can't drill our way out of this problem."

Politically, winning this debate -- or at least stopping the oil companies from winning -- is a strategic imperative for progressives in the 2008 election. Bush and McCain have picked this fight for a reason -- it looks like one they can win. And a winning fight that drags the Democratic candidate into an anti-populist stance while making Bush/McCain into champions is exactly what they need right now.

The result would be a big win for Big Oil with John McCain in the White House.

On energy issues, McCain and Bush share an agenda aimed at helping Big Oil. McCain has repeatedly voted against and skipped votes on renewable energy and increased fuel efficiency.

McCain has received more than $1.3 million from the oil & gas industry according to a Campaign Money Watch analysis of data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics Center.

Like Bush, McCain is surrounded by Big Oil lobbyists. At least 22 staffers or fundraisers for McCain's campaign have lobbied for Big Oil. They have represented 5 of the 9 oil companies in the 2008 Fortune 200.

It shouldn't be a surprise that McCain is buddy-buddy with Big Oil. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, McCain's tax plan gives nearly $4 billion in tax breaks to the top five American oil companies.

But this scheme by Bush, McCain, the oil companies and the Republicans has an Achilles' heel. A big bear hug of Big Oil and George W. Bush by John McCain can be a death blow if progressives do their job. This is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge.

All of this points to the imperative of getting organized now. You can't win if you don't play and right now our team isn't on the field. That needs to