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New API head focuses on message as industry skeptics circle

Mike Sommers promises ‘a new way of looking at advocacy’ as oil and natural gas industry faces renewed political opposition


Feb. 1, 2019
By Walt Williams

The American Petroleum Institute will celebrate its 100th anniversary in March, but its new CEO doesn’t want the association acting its age.

Mike Sommers joined the oil and natural gas industry trade group last summer, succeeding Jack Gerard, who had led API for a decade. In the process, Sommers stepped into one of the most powerful advocacy positions in Washington, D.C., although as chief of staff to former House Speaker John Boehner, he is used to navigating the capital’s corridors of power.

At 44, Sommers is one of the youngest executives to lead a major association—and he landed the job by pledging to be an agent of change.

“Whenever there is a CEO change, there’s going to be some renewal, some new vision about how the association and the industry looks at how they are doing,” Sommers told CEO Update. “And as part of my interview process, I articulated a new way of looking at advocacy and how this organization has approached Washington in the past.”

A new approach will likely be needed now that API and other fossil fuel industry groups face a changing political reality. Republicans under President Donald Trump spent the past two years easing enforcement of environmental regulations while pushing for expanded domestic oil and gas production. However, House Democrats have pledged to make renewable energy development a top priority. At the same time, more than 1,000 candidates for local, state and federal office—almost all Democrats—have signed a pledge to refuse campaign contributions from PACs and many individuals representing fossil fuel interests.

API has never suffered from a lack of resources when advocating for oil and gas production. The organization spent more than $400 million on public relations efforts from 2008 to 2013, according to an analysis of public records by the investigative journalism organization The Center for Public Integrity. But for Sommers, the content of the messaging is what is important.

“Natural gas and oil powers everyday life for everyday Americans,” Sommers said. “This industry is committed to providing low-cost, reliable and safe fuel sources, and I think this industry has a proud record of safety … so I think, of course, we have a good record to tell.”

API isn’t Sommers’ first rodeo as an association executive. He previously spent more than two years as CEO of the American Investment Council, which represents private equity firms. With annual revenue of less than $8 million, AIC is a much smaller organization than API, but Sommers noted he managed a staff of more than 100 when he was Boehner’s chief of staff.

Among Sommers’ initiatives at his previous job was initiating a rebranding that changed the group’s name from Private Equity Growth Capital Council to AIC, with the new title reflecting what the industry said was the investment private equity firms put into communities.

Bringing change

Sommers has wasted little time making changes at API. The association announced in August that former U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive Amanda Eversole has been hired as its first COO in at least a decade. The group has also hired former American Chemistry Council executive Deborah Phillips as vice president of global industry services and former Chevron lobbyist Bill Koetzle as vice president of federal affairs. (Chief Strategy Officer Marty Durbin announced his departure in December, saying he felt the time was right for change with the arrival of a new CEO.)

In addition, API has launched a strategic planning process at Sommers’ direction. The process, once finished, will provide a blueprint for any changes in coming years.

“You’re going to see—over time as we implement the strategy that comes together—there are going to be changes here to address not necessarily what the association needs, but what the industry needs to be effective going forward,” Sommers said.

The CEO also is embracing his new role as chief spokesman for the industry. Sommers delivered his first State of American Energy address in January, using the speech to highlight innovators he said were working on solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing energy development, including climate change.

API and the industry it represents have a complicated history with climate change, having spent previous decades questioning and downplaying the evidence for the science. About a dozen cities and the state of Rhode Island have sued major oil and gas companies over the effects of climate change. The lawsuits accuse the companies of knowing—yet failing to warn the public—about the risks of burning fossil fuels. However, as natural gas has become popular as a low-carbon alternative to coal for power generation, API has openly embraced the evidence for human-caused global warming, although it still prefers market innovation to government regulation.

“I reminded people in that speech that a billion people in the world don’t have access to reliable energy, and it’s oil and gas that is going to help fill those gaps,” Sommers said. “The (other) challenge, of course, is how do you continue to produce and refine it in an environmentally friendly and safe way? One of the things we found, because of the energy revolution that occurred in the United States, is we can meet that dual challenge.”

As for as how API will win over critics—particularly Democratic lawmakers—Sommers pointed to his own record of reaching across the aisle when working for a Republican speaker of the House. He also noted API has made a number of key hires of staff who are Democrats. Still, more than anything, he believes the message will win the day.

“There’s rhetoric on the right. There’s rhetoric on the left. But ultimately this industry is going to be around for a long time. … I try not to get caught up in the rhetoric and continue to work for an industry that has provided so much for this country.”