sarah macdonald as an energy citizenSarah McDonald at the scene.Yesterday the Public Citizen Texas team drove down to Houston to crash the American Petroleum Institute’s “Energy Citizen” event. Billed as a “grassroots” rally against the cap-and-trade bill currently before Congress, this event was nothing more than a company picnic.

About 2,500 energy employees were brought by charter bus to the Verizon Wireless Theater, a private location that could be easily secured to keep undesirables out. David, Ryan, and Andy were all denied access, but stealthily dressed in Banana Republic and spectator pumps, I was able to blend in with the crowd and slip into the hot dog line.

Inside the theater it became evident quickly what a polished, professional event this was. Right at the door you could pick up a bright yellow T-shirt with a clever slogan on it like “I’ll pass on $4 gas,” “I’m an Energy Citizen,” and “Congress, Don’t Take Away My Job!” The same lines could also be found on bumper stickers and the kinds of cardboard signs you would wave at a football game.

In the middle of the arena was a giant action center where employees could voice their disapproval of climate-change legislation through a variety of mechanisms. Six or seven computers were cued up with petitions to Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison or John Cornyn, and attendees were invited to text JOBS to 363749(ENERGY) to get involved. Drop boxes for postcards were also positioned in the corners of the room, and “activists” could sharpie their signatures to eight-foot-tall “shame on you” or “thank you” letters to members of Congress who voted for or against the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

My favorite aspect of the rally by far, however, was the high-school marching band and star-spangled dance team. When I asked one of the teenage dancers what she thought the rally was about, she told me she thought it was about conserving energy.

I was able to interview several rally attendees, but the majority of folks regarded me with suspicion or didn’t want to talk to me. Others clearly didn’t have much of an opinion on the bill other than what they’d been told, but one gentleman I spoke to was actually concerned about the special interest carve-outs in the bill for dirty coal. Stay posted for the video of these interviews later today, with the working title “Energy Workers Say the Darndest Things.” Teaser:

After about an hour I started to run out out of room on my camera, so I moved toward the front doors to see if I could trade off cameras with Andy, who was still stationed outside. Big mistake. Once the chief security guard saw me make eye contact with a marked man, I was out of there. He grabbed my shoulder and asked, “What energy company do you work for?” When I said I wasn’t with an energy company but was a member of the media, he said I was misrepresenting myself and summarily kicked me out.

I was a little disappointed to miss out on the great list of speakers, especially rodeo man Bill Bailey, who was master of ceremonies (irony, seeing as this rally was all hat and no cattle). But speaking to other individuals who had been denied access was even more enlightening than listening to Big Oil preach their sermon.

This was such a fake, astroturf event that they didn’t know how to handle legitimate grassroots support. A couple of women who had been to some of the teabagger events and town halls came down, armed with American flags and excited to protest “crap and tax” — but even they weren’t allowed in. Several others who had heard about the rally through FreedomWorks, on right-wing radio, or in the paper were also locked out.

Yesterday’s rally was the first of about 20 rallies that will be staged nationwide over the next few weeks. Thanks to Greenpeace, we already knew Big Oil’s game plan: rally up a bunch of astroturf support to kill cap and trade. But now we know the full story — they don’t even want to hear the voices of their real grassroots. These events are by invitation only, and all other members of the public — for or against climate legislation — will be shut out. If you don’t work for the company, you’re not invited to the picnic.

This post was originally published at Texas Vox.