The ABCs of Big Oil: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Century-Long Quest to Invade Elementary Schools

The ABCs of Big Oil: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Century-Long Quest to Invade Elementary Schools
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Shutterstock, PixelSquid, Getty Images)

Research shows that kids under the age of 7 can’t recognise that advertisements are trying to sell them something. One analysis found that even middle school kids can’t distinguish between news stories and advertorials.

But that hasn’t stopped the fossil fuel industry from aggressively marketing to children in elementary school. In fact, it may be exactly why the industry is targeting elementary school-aged kids. Climate journalist Amy Westervelt and I explore how the industry has spent decades shaping young minds in episode 2 of our podcast miniseries, a collaboration with Drilled called The ABCs of Big Oil.

Gleb Bahmutov learned about the industry targeting young kids firsthand this past spring. One day in May, he was picking up his son and his son’s friend from their elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The weather was beautiful, so he let them play on the monkey bars for a while before taking them home.

Bahmutov usually looks forward to listening to podcasts in the car while waiting for his kid on the playground, but on that particular day, he found something that threw him for a loop: a booklet in his son’s backpack.

“I was like, oh, yeah, it looks like a colouring book,” said Bahmutov. “And then I saw Eversource in the upper right corner.”

Seeing the logo for Eversource — a utility company that serves Cambridge residents and millions of others in the New England area — stamped on both the booklets piqued Bahmutov’s interest. So he pulled out the booklet and realised there was another one behind it. The first was titled, Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend, and the other was called My Nat and Gus. Both sung the praises of fossil gas and explained how dependent our lives are on it.

One page of the first booklet has an activity called “Natural Gas is Great,” which includes a list of positive statements about the dirty power source. Students guess which member of society — an office building owner, a pizza restaurant manager, a bus rider — made which positive statements about gas.

Image: Gleb Bahmutov Image: Gleb Bahmutov

The second book, My Nat and Gus, is somehow even more blatant in shilling for natural gas, which is a major source of methane and has caused deadly explosions. An activity focused on using gas for transit says, “natural gas is the cleanest fuel available for transportation.” (Electricity is the cleanest fuel available for transportation, for the record.)

We reached out to both Eversource and Bahmutov’s son’s school for comment about the booklets and will update this story if either responds.

The school district and the school both told Bahmutov back in May that the materials were distributed by accident. But it still concerns him that they exist at all. Bahmutov already struggles with how to inform his child about the climate crisis without freaking him out too much, let alone how to combat industry talking points.

Image: Gleb Bahmutov Image: Gleb Bahmutov

“Apparently there is industry specifically targeting children,” said Bahmutov. “It’s, I don’t want to say propaganda, but it’s specifically to make sure that when they grow up, that they have a special kind of impression of natural gas.”

Eversource’s materials are the latest in a long line of industry-funded curricula. In the podcast, Amy and I found examples from as far back as the 1920s showing how oil companies sponsored educational materials. But among the most rage-inducing examples of fossil fuel propaganda targeting kids is a cartoon series from the 1970s called The Kingdom of Mocha.

Mocha is a fictional place that shows up in comic books, colouring books, film strips, and videos made by the company Amoco Oil, which is now BP. The narrative is full of absurd stereotypes. Take the 1976 cartoon version of the story. In it, a caricature of a Black man is delegated to being a town fisherman, and a ditzy, curvaceous woman peddles melons — but we all know they’re not just talking about the fruit.

The bigotry in the video is palpable, but just as awful are its messages about the economy. In the movie, for instance, wood is used to power cars, and the character who starts a logging corporation is the hero of the story. He constantly pushes the message that taxation is a burden on the public and serves mostly to enrich government officials. Those in the film who call on him to protect the forest are painted as a silly special interest group, not people concerned about the environmental impacts of chopping down every tree in the kingdom.

These messages and others have been directed at elementary schoolers for decades. If you’ve come across any others, hit us up at [email protected] or send a tip anonymously through Drilled’s SecureBox.

Amy Westervelt contributed reporting for this piece.