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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.

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Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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