By Tory Newmyer, writer
FORTUNE -- Jack Gerard has pretty much been in crisis mode since taking over as president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute in November 2008. Shortly after he arrived at the powerful oil-industry lobbying group, President Obama and a wave of Democrats swept into office, promising to fund alternative energy sources and take action on climate change. Last year the BP disaster poured more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and Gerard spent the summer prepping his members for more than 50 congressional hearings and eight separate investigations related to the spill and its aftermath. Then, in mid-May, executives from five oil companies appeared before a committee of the U.S. Senate and defended their earnings, which could hit record highs in 2011. "Don't punish our industry for doing its job well," Chevron (CVX) CEO John Watson said. The performance was, by all accounts, a public relations disaster.
Indeed, Big Oil could scarcely be less popular than it is now: Gasoline prices on average are hovering around $4 a gallon, up more than a dollar from a year ago; turmoil in the Middle East and strong global demand contribute to high prices, but try telling that to the guy spending $75 to fill his tank at an Exxon station. President Obama, on the hunt for ways to cut debt, has targeted oil companies' tax breaks, and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in February found 74% of all respondents favor such a move. "Emotionally, no one is on their side," Robert Passikoff, president of the brand-loyalty consultancy Brand Keys, says of the industry. "No one feels bad for the oil companies."
And yet Gerard, a 53-year-old professional lobbyist whose last gig was running a chemical trade association, thinks he can get Americans to support, even root for, Big Oil. As he was putting out fires on Capitol Hill and at the White House, he also reached out to left-leaning groups that haven't been traditional allies, such as the AFL-CIO and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and has even hired the Nature Conservancy's top grass-roots organizer to mobilize a citizen activism campaign for API. Gerard believes he can protect his industry by reminding an increasingly prickly and vocal public -- think Tea Party -- about how many people his members and affiliates employ. (API says it is responsible for supporting some 9.2 million jobs.)
Eventually he hopes to have a presence on the ground in every congressional district in the country, so when a policy proposal hits the industry's bottom line, lawmakers from Seattle to Savannah will hear complaints about it from voters back home. The gambit is showing signs of success. A series of API-organized rallies last summer helped derail the "spill bill" Democrats aimed to enact in the wake of the BP (BP) disaster. Now he is hoping the prospect of new jobs will stoke popular zeal for hydraulic fracking -- a practice that is raising safety and environmental concerns. More
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