A nationwide series of rallies kicked off in Texas this week urging Congress to block legislation proposed in the wake of the BP oil disaster that would regulate the oil and gas industry more strictly and eliminate tax breaks.

The organizer of the Rally for Jobs events? The American Petroleum Institute (API), with help from other industry groups including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

Rallies held yesterday in Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi drew an estimated 5,500 people, many of them employees from Texas-based oil industry firms. API says the rallies are aimed at protecting the estimated 9.2 million U.S. jobs supported by the energy industry.

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About 200 employees of Houston-based Conoco-Phillips volunteered to attend yesterday’s rally at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Houston Chronicle reports. API provided transportation to the gatherings for oil company employees.

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Environmental advocates criticized the rallies as “astroturf” events that are designed to appear grassroots but which are actually funded by corporate interests.

“By staging these rallies, API is trying to distort public perception,” says Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “People want the government to ensure that another BP oil disaster never happens again. Lawmakers would be derelict in their duty if they didn’t respond to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.”

Slocum points out that API President Jack Gerard sent a memo to member companies last year laying out a plan to organize rallies against climate change legislation. The memo asked recipients to give API “the name of one central coordinator for your company’s involvement in the rallies” and warned, “Please treat this information as sensitive … we don’t want critics to know our game plan.”

“A year later, the game plan hasn’t changed,” says Slocum, “but the legislative focus has.”

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In the wake of the BP disaster, federal lawmakers have proposed setting new standards for blowout preventers and other safety equipment, eliminating the existing $75 million cap for oil companies’ liability for spills, restructuring the industry-friendly regulatory agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, reforming the royalty system to ensure oil companies pay their fair share for use of public land, and adding protections for whistleblowers who call attention to safety violations in oil and gas operations.

The oil industry is fighting those regulatory efforts — and spending big money to do so. So far this year, API alone has spent $3.57 million on federal lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year it spent $7.32 million. The oil and gas industry overall is the fourth-biggest spender on federal lobbying efforts in 2010, shelling out more than $74.9 million to date. Last year the industry came in third with an expenditure of more than $175 million.

API is holding other Rally for Jobs events through next week in Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico and Ohio.

(This story originally appeared at Facing South.)