The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools

The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Shutterstock, PixelSquid, Getty Images)

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has been distributing propaganda to limit how Americans think about taking on the climate crisis. They haven’t just done so through political lobbying and advertising. They’ve also taken a much more insidious route: shaping schools’ curricula. That’s what climate journalist Amy Westervelt and I explore in our new podcast, a collaboration with Drilled called The ABCs of Big Oil.

In our first episode, we wanted to find out why fossil fuel companies think it’s worth investing in education in the first place. What we dug up should give you a good idea.

There’s The Magic Barrel, a 1950s video made by Dupont and the American Petroleum Institute to promote petrochemicals to kids in school, which says that petrochemicals “quickened the very pulse of civilisation; provided man with an ease of living.” Philips Petroleum also commissioned a video series in the 1970s called American Enterprise hosted by none other than William Shatner — which says that thanks to mining, “we’ve increased and multiplied at a rate unmatched by any nation in history.”

These projects subtly deliver the message that American freedom is the product of extractive capitalism. A slideshow dug up by Carroll Muffett, the CEO and president of the Centre for International Law, lays bare some of the thinking behind this messaging. It’s part of a presentation given to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in the early 2000s.

Muffett shared it exclusively with Gizmodo and Drilled, and Amy and I had him walk us through it in the episode. But it really has to be seen to get the full effect. It was made by John Tobin, a well-known oil industry consultant, for an industry-backed group called the Energy Literacy Project.

The slideshow is a little hard to parse at times, but the basic points are clear. In it, Tobin lays out the idea that public education about energy can help the oil industry maintain its social licence to operate despite scientists’ increasingly dire warnings about the role it plays in driving the climate crisis and growing public desire to get off fossil fuels. In his words, “the industry can be profitable in spite of its image.”

“The public’s perception of the industry has been abysmal for years,” said Tobin in an interview. “And getting a more positive view, starting in K through 12 and keeping going, including adults and so on? We like to call it … developing science-savvy citizens, that will be able to make informed, well-reasoned decisions on their prudent use of natural resources, oil and gas in particular, and be able to make well-reasoned decisions on how they want to see the industry regulated.”

Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Centre for International Law Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Centre for International Law

It’s not just any kind of energy education that Tobin’s presentation mentions, though. In the presentation, he specifically outlines an approach called the three Es, which he calls “a path to an improved image (and, potentially, improved profits).” The Es stand for energy, economy, and environment, and it seems they’re in that order intentionally.

The idea is that every policy decision must weigh the impact on each of these three facets of human life. Exxon used this three Es paradigm, too — they called it the “energy cube.”

That may sound reasonable, because sure, we have to consider the economic impacts of policies on ordinary people. Winding down the fossil fuel industry would have both environmental, economic, and energy impacts. (Done properly, those impacts are all positive.) But even though one of his Es is “environment,” Tobin doesn’t say much about considering the environmental impacts of oil and gas in his slideshow — the word “climate” appears just once and the word “pollution” doesn’t appear at all. But he does note that preserving the environment comes with a price. One slideshow shows a mountain landscape with the title [sic] “The Price of Pristiness.”

“That’s a wonderful picture of one of our mountains here in Colorado during the fall,” Tobin said in an interview, noting it’s also his screensaver. “These sort of views, these sort of things that we consider to be part of our lifestyle, what we want to have, it costs.”

I asked Tobin if he thought that the threat of climate change should be a primary driver of changing the energy mix. “There is no question that climate change is there, and it’s not good,” he said. “Is it Doomsday? That’s a harder argument.”

There are some other interesting slides, like one where Tobin explains how different hydrocarbons end in “ane,” and then adds, for some reason, “cocaine.”

Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Centre for International Law Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Centre for International Law

But though some slides are strange, the basic message shines through: The oil industry should make sure people know how dependent their access to energy — and the economy — are on the sector. In one slide, Tobin writes, “The people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall be fuelled by cheap and abundant energy.”

I asked Tobin if he thought the public needed to be educated in school about the environmental implications of using different kinds of energy. He said, sure, but not separate from the other Es while saying “free markets” should be the driver of any energy transition. “I think the answer is yes, but within the context of the big picture of, what does the economy need in terms of energy?”

Amy Westervelt contributed reporting for this piece.