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Oil Industry Forms New Astroturf Group to Manipulate 2012 Republican Primary in Iowa

(Photo: Melina.; Edited: JR / Truthout)

As the Republican presidential candidates tour Iowa hoping to lock up the 2012 nomination, they will hear an assortment of questions on energy policy. Some of them, ThinkProgress has learned, will be planted by the oil and natural gas lobby to steer the candidates toward pro-Big Oil policies.

A recent campaign stop by Rick Santorum reveals at least part of the strategy. During the question and answer period of an event last Monday at the Pizza Ranch in Ames, Iowa, Santorum was asked by a man if he would pledge to support the Keystone XL, an oil pipeline currently under construction to bring crude oil from Canada through several states to refineries in Texas. Santorum disregarded the question, and spoke for a few minutes about problems encountered by the fracking industry in his home state of Pennsylvania. The man interjected and again asked whether Santorum would say definitively if he supports the pipeline. Santorum, looking slightly annoyed, relented and said yes.

During the event, two young people in the back of the room handed out cards and pamphlets from a new organization called the Iowa Energy Forum. “We’re a grassroots group,” said Connor Reed, one of people sporting Iowa Energy Forum t-shirts. The website for the forum says it is simply “a growing community of concerned citizens committed to two goals – achieving energy security for our country and holding our elected officials accountable for shaping energy policies.” The website highlights Canadian tar sands and the importance of the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the need for more domestic drilling.

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Rather than being a grassroots organization, the Iowa Energy Forum is a slick, new creation of the oil and gas industry. The group is financed by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association representing Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Transcanada, Shell Oil, and other oil industry heavyweights.

After witnessing the spectacle at the Santorum event, ThinkProgress observed Iowa Energy Forum staffers attending various Iowa Tea Party events and Herman Cain campaign stops. Iowa Energy Forum trackers have pressed their issue to Mitt Romney and other 2012 candidates.

Daniel Weiser, a partner at the Iowa lobbying firm Capitol Strategies, told ThinkProgress that his company helped set up the Iowa Energy Forum. “We’re lobbying for them down in the capitol, got the legislative task forced signed up,” Weiser said. Weiser’s firm helped recruit about 40 people so “theoretically when a presidential candidate comes, we have people to speak to them.” The goal, Weiser said, was to press the candidates on supporting domestic energy production, including renewables. However, Weiser admitted that fossil fuels are the priority. “Drilling for oil and natural gas, those are the biggies.”

However, the main drivers of the front group appear to be linked to LS2g, a corporate public relations and lobbying firm based in Des Moines. Chuck Larson andKaren Slifka, former Republican Party operatives, manage the Iowa Energy Forum and the LS2g office serves as the group’s headquarters.

In addition to astroturfing candidate events, the Iowa Energy Forum has pushed to defend billions in targeted subsidies to the oil and gas industry. The group recently hosted American Petroleum Institute economist John Felmy, who blasted attempts by Congress to repeal such giveaways. The group has managed to snag notable politicians, including Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA), to appear at their press conferences.

A new profile of American Petroleum Institute head Jack Gerard sheds light on the purpose of groups like the Iowa Energy Forum. Gerard’s lobbying strategy has focused on boosting the public perception of big oil. Gerard has dedicated millions of dollars worth of ads promoting his industry, but he has also organized fly-ins of African American and Hispanic oil workers, bused in workers to hold large public rallies in pivotal states, and recruited unlikely allies to press his case, including labor unions. He even hired one of the Nature Conservancy’s top officials to help build his pro-oil army.

The oil industry’s brazen attempt to manipulate the Republican primary isn’t necessarily a new strategy, however. In 2008, the coal industry sent staffers posing as grassroots activists to campaign events for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to hawk “clean coal.” The fake activists would press the candidates to support coal industry priorities, and then once they went on record, the video would be used in coal industry advertisements.

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