A Bizarre Coal Industry Propaganda Program Is Infiltrating K-12 Classrooms in the U.S.

A Bizarre Coal Industry Propaganda Program Is Infiltrating K-12 Classrooms in the U.S.
Photo: Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

Next week, dozens of teachers from North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, and Iowa will descend on Bismarck State College in North Dakota for the annual three-day Lignite Energy Council Teacher’s Seminar.

There, according to materials posted on the seminar’s website, they’ll hear presentations and panel discussions on coal’s history, geology, mining and reclamation, as well as hearing about the “career opportunities, environmental challenges, transmission and research and development topics.” The seminar, which has been held each June since 1986 (cancelled only last year due to the pandemic) is run by the Lignite Energy Council, a regional trade association whose mission statement is to “protect, maintain and enhance development of our region’s abundant lignite resource” — referring to lignite coal, the least energy-dense type of coal.

Run at no cost to educators, the seminar is part of a larger program to convince teachers and kids that coal is “vitally important” and that includes worksheets for kids that identify carbon dioxide as “vital to plant life.” The entire program may also be partially funded by out-of-state ratepayers from utilities that tout their renewable energy goals.

If you’re a huge coal fan, the seminar sounds pretty dope. Teachers don’t have to pay anything to attend, a nice perk in an era of tight school budgets. Before the pandemic, the seminar featured tours of “mining operations, reclamation sites and coal conversion facilities.” According to an informational video, teachers are given a number of free goodies, including an actual piece of coal as well as ash samples (wow!) and educational materials and lesson plans “to take back to their classroom.” Many of these educational materials are available on the LEC website; among them is an “Energy and CO2 Management” study guide with several misleading facts that paint carbon dioxide as good, actually, and a terrifying “Captain Coal” colouring sheet.

In a video produced by LEC geared towards younger viewers that kind of makes me want a lobotomy, two kids start casually chatting about the lignite coal industry, as all normal elementary school kids do. One of them is really into her new coal-themed phone game; her reluctant friend (or perhaps sibling?) starts asking her questions about her new passion.

“My cousin says that coal creates pollution and wrecks the environment,” the sulky kid on the sofa says.

“That’s wrong,” his sister declares, adding that she “learned in class” that emissions from coal-based energy have decreased. “The power plants that burn coal to make electricity work really hard and spend a lot of money to make it a clean fuel.” (LEC did not answer several of our questions as of press time, including if any independent scientists had reviewed the educational materials they pass out to teachers at the seminar.)

Coal’s ties to schools run deep. Local taxes on coal mines in North Dakota and other states help directly fund schools in the area, and we’re now seeing some disastrous results as the coal market implodes. In Wyoming, a K-12 education system that relies heavily on taxes from coal production is facing serious budget cuts as demand for coal drops and mines close.

The LEC teacher seminar offers another in for coal to influence what goes on in public school classrooms. According to LEC documents, teachers attending the seminar are eligible to win a $US1,000 ($1,283) grant for their school; a recent winner used the money to start up a LEGO robotics program. The course also counts as a continuing education credit, which help keep teachers in good standing. It’s hard to fault cash-strapped public school teachers in coal-dependent regions for participating.

But the teacher seminar could draw funds from outside of North Dakota, including from customers in states with more aggressive emissions reduction goals. According to LEC’s 2019 annual report, nearly $US2 ($3) million of its $US4 ($5) million budget comes from member dues; several regional utilities are members of the LEC. At least one of these utilities used ratepayer funds to pay its LEC dues: Otter Tail Power, which, in its latest rate case, requested hundreds of thousands of dollars from its customers for membership dues in specific advocacy organisations, including LEC.

Otter Tail serves 132,500 customers in Minnesota and North and South Dakota and proudly touts its renewable energy resources on its website. In an email, a spokesperson told Earther that the $US47,545 ($60,981) it was requesting ratepayers to pony up for an LEC membership was separated out from dues the utility pays that fund the organisation’s lobbying efforts, and that the LEC does a lot to support research into “emissions-reductions technologies.” The spokesperson did not respond to further questions about whether LEC also separates out its educational programs in its emails, or whether Otter Tail would separate ratepayer money from dues for LEC’s educational programs moving forward.

While “educational” programs like the teacher seminars may not technically be lobbying, in documents, LEC doesn’t even try to disguise that it’s feeding pro-coal propaganda to kids in order to save a dying industry. In a grant proposal submitted by LEC last fall for an education program, of which the seminar is a part, the group asked the state of North Dakota to foot the bill for $US200,000 ($256,520) of what it said is a $US400,000 ($513,040) yearly effort to promote coal to teachers and kids. Here’s how the proposal put it:

“Education about the regional lignite industry is essential in fostering a positive or favourable view of the industry which also aids in favourable regulatory, business and career climates for the Industry. Access to educational opportunities and easily-consumable industry information is crucial in furthering awareness about the industry, especially with younger generations.”

Deliverables listed include the goal to educate teachers and students alike about the “energy, economics and the environmental impacts of the regional lignite industry.” It also defined success as the “target audience” reaching “agreement that coal is vitally important to our region’s power supply.” 

Addressing the climate crisis will essentially require removing coal from the energy system. A 2018 landmark report found coal use would have to drop 97% globally to have a clear shot at keeping the planet from heating up more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond having a habitable planet, there’s also a good economic argument to ditch coal. Research shows tearing down three-quarters of coal plants in the U.S. today and replacing them with renewables would result in cheaper electricity.

The fossil fuel industry — and coal in particular — is in decline. The free teacher seminar and propaganda for kids pushed by LEC as well as other groups and utilities are an attempt to keep obsolesce at bay a bit longer. But forcing ratepayers to pay for brainwashing kids about a dying industry can only wor for so long.