Pipeline to the Classroom: How Big Oil Promotes Fossil Fuels to America’s Children

by Jie Jenny Zou / The Guardian

This story was a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Oklahoma, a reporting project of NPR member stations in Oklahoma.

Jennifer Merritt’s first graders at Jefferson elementary school in Pryor, Oklahoma, were in for a treat. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the students gathered for story time with two special guests, Republican lawmakers Tom Gann and Marty Quinn.

Dressed in suits, the two men read aloud from “Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream,” a parable in which a Bob the Builder-lookalike awakens to find his toothbrush, hard hat and even the tires on his bike missing.

Abandoned by the school bus, Pete walks to Petroville elementary in his pajamas.

“It sounds like you’re missing all of your petroleum by-products today!” Pete’s teacher, Mrs Rigwell, exclaims, extolling oil’s benefits to Pete and fellow students like Sammy Shale. Before long, Pete decides that “having no petroleum is like a nightmare!”

The tale is the latest in an illustrated series by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, a state agency funded by oil and gas producers. The board has spent upwards of $40m over the past two decades on providing education with a pro-industry bent, including hundreds of pages of curriculums, a speaker series and an after-school program – all at no cost to educators of children from kindergarten to high school.

A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to “frack” Twinkies using straws to pump for cream to emulate shale drilling. A national program sponsored by companies including BP and Shell claims it’s too soon to tell if the earth is heating up, but “a little warming might be a good thing”.

Decades of documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity reveal a tightly woven network of organizations that works in concert with the oil and gas industry to paint a rosy picture of fossil fuels in America’s classrooms. Led by advertising and public-relations strategists, the groups have long plied the tools of their trade on impressionable children and teachers desperate for resources.

Proponents of programs like the one in Oklahoma say they help the oil and gas industry replenish its aging workforce by stirring early interest in science, technology, engineering and math. But some experts question the educational value and ethics of lessons touting an industry that plays a central role in climate change and air pollution.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, likened industry-sponsored curriculums that ignore climate science to advertising. “You’re exploiting that trusted relationship between the student and the teacher,” he said. Leiserowitz – whose research has focused on how culture, politics and psychology impact public perception of the environment – said fossil-fuel companies have a stake in perpetuating a message of oil dependency.

As early as the 1940s, the industry’s largest and most powerful lobby group targeted schoolchildren as a key element of its fledgling marketing strategy. By the 1960s, the American Petroleum Institute was looking to shake its reputation as a “monopoly which reaped excessive profits” and set out to cultivate a network of “thought leaders” that included educators, journalists, politicians and even clergy, according to an organizational history copyrighted by API in 1990.

The idea caught on. Hundreds of oil-and-gas-centric lesson plans are now available online, walking a blurry line between corporate sponsorship and promotion at a time when climate science has increasingly come under siege at the highest levels of government.

On 1 June, Donald Trump, flanked by EPA administrator – and former Oklahoma attorney general – Scott Pruitt, announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Oklahoma is among a dozen states that have opted for watered-down versions of Next Generation Science Standards, a joint effort by states and educational organizations to revamp science teaching that has met with political backlash since 2013. The Oklahoma version strips provisions on evolution and the human causes of global warming. Along with Colorado, Kansas and Montana, Oklahoma legislators have also championed bills requiring educators teach “both sides” of those scientific concepts.

A 2016 study confirmed that America’s youth receive “mixed messages” on climate change. Nearly a third of middle-and-high-school science teachers nationwide have wrongly suggested global warming is naturally occurring. A quarter have spent as much time rebutting evidence of warming as they have presenting it.

Schools and libraries across Oklahoma have received more than 9,000 complimentary copies of Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream since it was published last year. The story has been a hit with Jennifer Merritt’s students, who won the storytelling visit from lawmakers last November after submitting a Facebook photo to the energy resources board. Posing on a jungle gym, the students clutched stuffed animals and footballs – their “favorite petroleum by-products”.

“It’s not some boring thing,” Merritt said of the board’s “Little Bits” curriculum for children up to age eight, which features alliterative characters like Freddie Fuelless and Oliver Oilpatch. Without it, she said, “I probably wouldn’t have taught first graders about energy.”

Merritt is one of 14,000 Oklahoma teachers who have attended workshops on how to use the board’s “innovative, one-of-a-kind science and energy curriculum in their classrooms.” Participants are reimbursed for supplies year-round and can register their classes for free museum field trips – so long as the exhibits highlight petroleum.

On a recent Saturday, a workshop was in session at Choctaw high school, east of Oklahoma City. The parking lot was bustling as teachers loaded their cars with heavy tubs, each stuffed with up to $1,200 worth of calculators, lab equipment and other materials. In classrooms, some teachers plotted oil-production trends while others watched bubbling brews simulating how the industry wrings oil from depleting fields.

In an email, board chairman Danny Morgan wrote that the organization doesn’t use public funds and “does not function like a typical agency”. Under state law, half of its revenues from oil and gas producers are spent restoring abandoned oil wells. Morgan pointed to a board safety campaign aimed at preventing children from playing on dangerous pumpjacks that dot the state, writing, “if just one child is kept safe through the awareness this program created, it is well worth the effort.”

While the board’s curriculum enlightens students about the benefits of “black gold,” their teachers are hard-pressed to find any information on climate change or other drawbacks of fossil fuels – even as Oklahoma struggles to curb a slew of man-made earthquakes tied to its fracking boom. Morgan, an oil company executive and a former state legislator, declined to say why the board’s materials fail to address global warming.

Cheerleading for the industry has been central to the energy resources board’s mission from the start. Lawmakers created the board in 1993 as a “privatized” state agency funded by a voluntary tax on local oil and gas producers to publicize the industry. Kansas, Illinois and Ohio followed suit with similar legislation.

But Oklahoma remains the epicenter of oil-industry puffery in the classroom. The board’s curriculums are used in an estimated 98% of Oklahoma school districts and have been adopted in neighboring Kansas. Records show that the board’s programs and pro-industry ads have been held out as models to trade groups and legislators in Montana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas.

Read more at the Guardian’s website

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