Fossil fuels in schools: industry faces pushback in fight for hearts and minds of next generation

Fossil fuels in schools: industry faces pushback in fight for hearts and minds of next generation

“Brainwashing” was how the head of corporate and commercial at Queensland gas company State Gas, Lucy Snelling, initially described what was being taught about the oil and gas industry in Australian schools.

She now regrets using the term but her comments, made at the national conference of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (Appea), captured a moment of frustration in an industry that feels it is engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

And while historically the oil and gas industry has enjoyed modest success with getting its pro-fossil fuels material into classrooms and universities, it is now experiencing a pushback.

In September, Macquarie University announced it would drop Santos branding from a children’s science roadshow. And in 2020 the University of Queensland decided to stop offering a standalone Masters of Petroleum Engineering due to lack of demand.

Snelling says recruiting young people into the workforce amid growing public awareness of oil, gas and coal’s direct role in causing climate change is becoming an urgent problem.

“The workforce in the oil and gas industry – and mining generally – is ageing, and not enough young people are joining,” she says. “This presents real challenges – we cannot transition safely if there are not enough people to carry out the essential work and introduce the innovations that are necessary to transition.

“So an education which leaves young people thinking that there is no future in this industry, that does not see the skills the industry develops as relevant and necessary for the future, is highly problematic.”

Prof Murray Print from the University of Sydney says if the industry has been feeling frustrated, it could be because it is not easy for lobby groups to influence the Australian curriculum.

During a recent review of the science curriculum, which now includes expanded material on climate change, at least five organisations involved in the production of fossil fuels or educational groups in partnerships with fossil fuel companies, made submissions. These included BHP and the Minerals Council of Australia.

Print, who previously worked with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (Acara), says these sorts of campaign are common but there are several “checks and balances” to stop an organisation from having undue influence. As a result, some might chose a different path.

“They try to go through the back door,” he says. “They prepare resources which teachers can use as part of the curriculum.”

Print says what gets taught in the classroom ultimately comes down to individual teachers but familiar tactics include the creation of preprepared lesson plans, workshops, class materials, excursions and teacher conferences.

In Australia the oil and gas industry has been no stranger to these tactics, though their efforts have often been clumsy.

Perhaps the most famous example is Questacon, the well-loved Science national science and technology centre that is sponsored by Shell and Inpex. Questacon has previously defended the partnership by saying it controls what information is presented, though it has promoted gas, a fossil fuel, as a transition fuel.

Woodside, one of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world and responsible for developing the $16bn Scarborough gasfield in Western Australia, partnered with Earth Sciences Western Australia to create the Woodside Australian Science Project in 2012.

Since then the organisation has produced and distributed school materials, including some for Year 10 students on the “greenhouse effect” that described humanity’s role in the “rapid warning of our atmosphere” through the “burning of fossil fuels and industry” as “a point of some debate”.

It also included suggested questions for students asking “why should we be grateful there are ‘greenhouse gases’ in our atmosphere?” The correct answer was given as: “Greenhouse gasses keep the surface of this planet warm enough to support life.”

Another Woodside workshop intended to teach children about geology had students demonstrate drilling for oil by sucking Vegemite from sandwiches using straws.

In perhaps the most embarrassing episode, Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal introduced a human-sized lump of coal named Hector – complete with his own picture book and television segment – to engage with kids. It did not go well.

Where industry has had success in the past, it is now experiencing opposition.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has previously said limiting global heating to 1.5C as set out in the Paris agreement meant there can be no new oil, gas or coal investment beyond 2021.

Along with several universities, Santos, which is developing the $3.6bn Narrabri gas project, partners with the Australian Science Teachers Association to deliver the Santos Science Experience.

Macquarie University announced it was dropping Santos branding from a science roadshow due to concerns the industry was treating education as a path to influence, as it does with sports advertising and arts sponsorship.

But despite setbacks, these strategic “partnerships” between fossil fuel companies and third party educators have often proved the most effective way to influence.

In one example, Santos partnered with Stem Punks, a startup founded in 2016, to introduce primary school students to science in ways that are fun and accessible.

The chief executive and founder of Stem Punks, Michael Holmstrom, says Santos approached his company “about three years ago” to facilitate workshops, mostly in regional areas.

Stem Punks has since conducted workshops at the Appea conference, where Holmstrom also appeared on a panel, and Santos was listed as a “key partner” on the Stem Punks website, but Holmstrom says that is no longer accurate and would be changed.

A promotional video on the Stem Punks Facebook page includes footage from a workshop where Santos banners and Santos-branded equipment is present, and students were given Santos-branded merchandise.

Holmstrom – who supports the science of climate change and believes it’s a serious issue – says his focus is on “empowering kids to learn critical thinking skills” and “to learn skills to be part of the solution [to climate change]”. He says the workshops are “in no way” about promoting fossil fuels.

Though Stem Punks receives “less than 1%” of its income from Santos and is focused on delivering unrelated projects involving the space industry, sports science and programs with schools in developing countries, Holmstrom says he won’t walk away as he believes he can make change by engaging with industry.

“I believe the fossil fuel industry knows there is change needed,” he says. “They know a population wants change in moving away from fossil fuel measures to sustainable measures.

“Rather than sitting on the sidelines, I’d rather work with industry.”

But the Australian science communicator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki says fossil fuel producers should be treated as “bad-faith actors”.

“We should treat oil and gas companies with the same degree of seriousness as tobacco companies trying to get into schools telling kids smoking does no harm,” Kruszelnicki says.

He points to the decades-long history of disinformation, lobbying and public relations campaigns that have deliberately distorted the public conversation on climate change.

The impact of this has been so great that in June this year the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said “fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat”.

Though Kruszelnicki says he is not surprised fossil fuel companies are trying to get into schools, as decades of underfunding in public education have created a vacuum, he says it is important not to lose sight of the harm oil and gas production causes.

“[Climate change] is costing us a huge amount of money, causing huge damage to the environment and is costing lives,” he says. “The fact that 20% of Australian forest got burned in 2020 – that’s their fault.

“This was damage that was entirely preventable, in the sense that it didn’t have to happen if [oil and gas companies] followed the science back in 1990.

“The summary is that we can stop and reverse global warming with today’s technology – and the only thing stopping us is the influence of fossil fuel companies have with various politicians around the world.”

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