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Trump and Haley target DeSantis’ energy record with eyes on Iowa caucuses

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — Ginger Goepper only spoke to Ron DeSantis for 15 seconds in the summer of 2018, but the environmental advocate managed to secure an on-camera pledge from the Republican to ban fracking in Florida if he became governor.

He kept that promise after he won.

More than five years later, Goepper was “shocked” and “irritated” to learn that the brief exchange is now featured in a new political ad airing in Iowa that suggests DeSantis harbors progressive environmental views. The commercial is the latest attempt by DeSantis’ Republican presidential rivals to target his energy record for Iowans ahead of the January caucuses.

DeSantis, over a near 11-year career in elected office, has staked out positions on energy production reflective of the political philosophies that guided him at the time. But as a candidate for president, some of those stances are complicating his efforts to convince Republicans he would kickstart a domestic energy boom if elected president, and he has labored to explain how his views have evolved.

In the new ad – paid for by a super PAC aligned with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – Goepper can be seen grasping DeSantis’ hands and asking if he would “support banning fracking in Florida.” Those last two words are hard to hear over the crowd and are excluded in the on-screen captioning, creating the false impression that DeSantis supports a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” a method for extracting natural gas.

The clip appears twice in the 30-second ad.

“It really is unethical, and it’s unfair to take a specific reference to Florida out of context,” Goepper told CNN on Tuesday. “And don’t think I’m in his fan club. I haven’t given one penny to him. But they’re putting words in his mouth.”

Haley and her allies are not alone in targeting DeSantis’ energy record. Any time former President Donald Trump steps foot in the Hawkeye State, he is likely to mention DeSantis’ previous opposition to ethanol subsidies, a top concern of corn farmers there.

In response to the latest ad from SFA Fund, Inc., the pro-Haley super PAC, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said the governor had released “the most detailed energy plan of any candidate in this race to restore American energy dominance.” DeSantis has said his plan would lower the cost of gas to $2 a gallon by 2025.

“Nikki Haley, on the other hand, supported a massive gas tax increase as governor of South Carolina,” Griffin said, “and would be a disaster for the wallets of working families.”

SFA Fund spokeswoman Brittany Yanick did not address Goepper’s concern but stood by the ad in a statement to CNN, saying DeSantis was “trying to rewrite history.” Yanick confirmed that the super PAC is spending “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to air the ad in Iowa.

“You can expect to see more of that sort of information and material from us as we move forward,” Mark Harris, lead strategist for the super PAC, said Tuesday in a call with reporters.

Tea party beginnings

Before DeSantis was even a candidate, Trump had made ethanol subsidies a focal point of his efforts in Iowa, where half the state’s corn ends up as fuel and agriculture is central to local economies and the way of life. Trump told a crowd there in March that DeSantis while in the US House “fought against it at every turn, and he’s going to do that again.”

As a tea party conservative DeSantis regularly raised concerns about special interests while serving in the US House. In 2015, he authored an amendment to end the renewable fuel standard, the federal policy that has resulted in the inclusion of ethanol from corn in most gasoline sold in the US.

When the amendment failed to get a vote in the GOP-controlled House, DeSantis published an op-ed on a conservative website that attacked his own party, calling the lack of consideration “a great example at how Washington is wired to put its interests ahead of those of the taxpayer.” He described the ethanol mandate as “venture socialism” and a “harmful policy that damages car and boat engines, hurts the environment, reduces fuel efficiency and places an upward pressure on gas and food prices.”

“The American taxpayers pay for a policy that richly rewards producers of ethanol and the D.C. lobbyists paid to guard this special treatment,” DeSantis wrote.

Trump’s campaign distributed flyers at the Iowa State Fair this summer that highlighted DeSantis’ position, including the use of the word “socialism.”

DeSantis published the 2015 op-ed just as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, then a Republican presidential candidate, was facing questions from Iowans about his own past objections to the ethanol subsidy. Cruz, though, stood by his opposition, telling Iowa farmers they didn’t need Washington’s special carve-out. He ultimately won the Iowa caucuses in 2016, before losing the GOP nomination to Trump months later.

In his own presidential race, DeSantis for months declined to address similar questions. In September, he broke his silence in a Des Moines Register opinion piece, writing that as president he would “embrace energy that is produced in America and that supports American jobs” and promised to “work with leaders like (Iowa) Gov. Kim Reynolds to support her request for approval of E15 for year-round use,” referring to a gasoline blend that includes 15% ethanol. He didn’t acknowledge his past opposition to the subsidy.

“Washington needs to allow more freedom of choice in its transportation options and get out of the way of innovation,” he wrote.

According to a recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll, 27% of likely Republican caucusgoers said “ethanol and renewable energy” was “extremely” important to them. While it trailed other concerns in the poll such as border security and inflation, Jim Boyer, chair of the Emmet County Republican Party, said those who prioritize ethanol were highly motivated by it.

“Farmers are going to vote with their pocketbook,” Boyer told CNN earlier this summer after introducing DeSantis at an event in his county.

DeSantis’ change of heart hasn’t stopped Trump from making it into an issue. Visiting the state last month, the former president said DeSantis would “kill Iowa ethanol and demolish the economy of your state.”

Focus on Florida

Goepper was volunteering for a clean water advocacy group when she approached DeSantis at a 2018 campaign event in Tampa as another activist filmed. The group, Food & Water Action, had set out to get all the candidates for governor that year to commit on camera to opposing fracking.

DeSantis by then had displayed an environmental stance in line with many other Florida Republicans who actively opposed offshore drilling. In 2015, he joined a bipartisan effort by Florida’s US House delegation to prevent seismic testing off the state’s Atlantic coast, a precursor to oil exploration and drilling, and later that year lobbied the Obama administration to halt the permitting process.

Capturing DeSantis’ fracking promise was a major victory for clean-water advocates, who had become increasingly alarmed by efforts to search for natural gas in the Everglades. But Goepper never interpreted his pledge to expand beyond the Sunshine State, she told CNN.

“It was a wonderful commitment, and he stood by the commitment,” Goepper said.

On his second day as governor in 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order that directed the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to “oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” He threatened he would “be raising Cain” if then-President Trump opened Florida’s coastal waters to drilling, warning that an oil spill there would have a “cascading effect” on his state’s economy. In 2020, his administration purchased 20,000 acres of Everglades wetlands to permanently protect them from oil drilling.

As a presidential candidate, DeSantis has often pushed for more fossil fuel extraction across the country using methods he has banned in his state. Haley in recent debates has seized on this perceived inconsistency.

“He always talks about what happens on Day One. You better watch out because what happens on Day Two is when you’re in trouble,” Haley said at the September debate. “Day Two in Florida, you ban fracking, you ban offshore drilling.”

DeSantis’ campaign responded on social media by accusing Haley of supporting fracking on environmentally sensitive lands in the Everglades.

The new ad from the pro-Haley super PAC that is airing in Iowa goes further than the candidate by suggesting that DeSantis had misled Iowans from the debate stage when he declared that he supports fracking elsewhere.

The energy plan DeSantis released in September outside a Texas oil field, though, included new promises to “unleash oil and gas exploration,” ease environmental permitting on energy projects and allow for mining and extraction of natural resources on federal lands. Under his plan, he would also withdraw the US from international climate agreements and repeal new subsidies for electric vehicles championed by President Joe Biden.

DeSantis attributed his past anti-drilling position in Florida to voters who enshrined such protections in the state constitution.

“The view in Florida is definitely more mixed on that than it would be in, like, Louisiana or Texas,” DeSantis said at the Texas event. “But that doesn’t mean that other states, you know, shouldn’t do it. It’s really up to them what they want to do.”

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