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Big Oil's Pipeline Into American Schools


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.

Teachers gathered at Choctaw High School for a workshop in April by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma

Freddie Fuelless and Oliver Oilpatch

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 after submitting a photo to the energy resources board via Facebook. 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 kindergarten through second grade, 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 among 14,000 Oklahoma teachers who have attended workshops on how to use what the board calls its "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 curricula are used in an estimated 98 percent of Oklahoma school districts and have been adopted in neighboring Kansas. Records show that Oklahoma's energy resources board has pitched its programs and pro-industry ads to trade groups and legislators in Montana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas. Similar petroleum boards in Kansas, Illinois and Ohio declined to fulfill records requests filed by the center.

Oklahoma's board appears to have taken cues from the American Petroleum Institute—the country's leading oil and gas lobby group, representing more than 625 companies. The plot of "Big Bad Dream" bears uncanny similarities to API's 1996 educational film, Fuel-less: you can't be cool without fuel. Records show that the board's education director, who wrote "Big Bad Dream," has ordered hundreds of copies of Fuel-less to distribute locally—most recently in 2013.

API's vice president of communications delivered a special presentation to the board in 2012 on marketing strategies. The same year, an API lobbyist asked the board to host a fracking workshop on its behalf as part of the trade group's effort to reach out to legislators, regulators and other stakeholders nationwide. Morgan wrote that the board did not participate in the workshop because API "never followed up on the request." He added that the board itself doesn't engage in lobbying.

Copied on API's communications with the energy resources board was Bill Whitsitt, a Devon Energy executive who helped draft letters for then-state attorney general Pruitt. In 2014, The New York Times reported on Pruitt's extensive industry ties—which included oil and gas companies, utilities and lobby groups.

Where the board draws the line between industry promotion and youth education is unclear. While it spent $3.5 million for K-12 efforts in 2016, roughly the same amount went to messaging it calls "public education." Its contract with Oklahoma-based Brothers & Company—which creates its pro-industry commercials and some K-12 materials—forbids the advertising firm to perform work for other clients that "portrays the oil and natural gas exploration and production industry in an unfavorable light." Brothers & Company counts among its clients Kansas Strong, an oil and gas marketing group similar to Oklahoma's; apparel company Under Armour; and handgun maker Remington.

Last spring, Brothers & Company rolled out an ad campaign highlighting petroleum's benefits and based on Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein is a libertarian writer whose work is popular with climate-change deniers and who falsely claims that rising carbon dioxide levels have yielded only "mild and manageable" warming.

A Brothers & Company official wrote in an email that the firm's work for the energy resources board helps "citizens better understand domestic oil and natural gas production."

The firm also developed videos on Oklahoma's "seismicity issue" after the state was rattled by more than 900 earthquakes in 2015 and polls showed the matter was dampening the industry's "brand." Energy resources board members insisted that no cause for the seismic uptick be cited in the videos. Records show that Morgan cautioned his colleagues to be "careful not to state anything that someone might misconstrue and attempt to use in a court case." Soon afterward, state officials acknowledged that underground wells used for fracking waste likely were to blame.

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