-By Lee Fang

June 25, 2011- 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.

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.”



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