Big Oil's Pipeline Into American Schools
By Jie Jenny Zou
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 in late November for story time with two special guests: state Rep. Tom Gann and state Sen. Marty Quinn.
Dressed in suits, the Republican lawmakers read aloud from "Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream," a parable in which a Bob the Builder lookalike awakens to find his toothbrush, hardhat and even the tires on his bike missing. Abandoned by the school bus, Pete walks to Petroville Elementary in his pajamas.
State Rep. Tom Gann and State Sen. Marty Quinn read aloud to first graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Pryor, OklahomaOklahoma Energy Resources Board
"It sounds like you are missing all of your petroleum by-products today!" his 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 $40 million over the past two decades on K-12 education with a pro-industry bent, including hundreds of pages of curricula, a speaker series and an afterschool program—all at no cost to educators.
A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to "frack" Twinkies using straws to pump for cream and advises on the curriculum for a charter school that revolves around shale drilling. A national program whose sponsors include 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, or STEM. 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 curricula 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 K-12 schools 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 at the click of a mouse. The programs occupy a gray area between corporate sponsorship and promotion at a time when climate science has increasingly come under siege at the highest levels of government. On June 1, President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator—and former Oklahoma attorney general—Scott Pruitt, announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
"Teachers are taking their cues from the political situation around them," said Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that advocates for climate-change and evolution education. He pointed to a survey that found teachers in Republican counties and states are less likely to teach the scientific consensus on global warming—regardless of the educator's politics. "Teachers live in local communities, they're sensitive to the needs and desires of the people paying their paychecks."
Branch's group supports wide-scale adoption of Next Generation Science Standards, a joint effort by states and educational organizations to revamp K-12 science that has met with political backlash since the standards were published in 2013. Oklahoma is among a dozen states that have opted for watered-down versions, sometimes omitting provisions on evolution and the anthropogenic causes of global warming. Along with Colorado, Kansas and Montana, Oklahoma legislators have also championed bills requiring that educators teach "both sides" of those scientific concepts.
At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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