For years, Big Oil has cozied up to American public schools—and now they seem to be cashing in their chips. New emails appear to show that some elected officials in charge of public schools may have been helped in attacking the Biden administration’s recent decision to pause oil and gas leasing on federal land by powerful oil industry lobbying groups.
The emails, obtained by the watchdog group Accountable.us as part of a public records request, are exchanges from late January of this year between Kirsten Baesler, the superintendent of public schools in North Dakota, and two members of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry advocacy group in the state.
“Ron wanted me to send you some ND stats on oil impacts,” the first email from Kristen Hamman, the director of regulatory and public affairs at the North Dakota Petroleum Council, reads, referencing Ron Ness, the group’s president, who is also cc’ed. In the email, Hamman listed a series of statistics and employment numbers on the oil and gas industry in North Dakota and Wyoming.
“Thank you, Kristen!” Baesler responded to the statistics. “This is very helpful.”
A little over two weeks after that exchange, on Feb. 16, Baesler joined four other state superintendents from Alaska, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming (the former two are governor-appointed while the latter two are elected like North Dakota’s) in penning a letter to the Biden administration. Their letter was in protest of, curiously for five educators, the administration’s decision to ban fossil fuel leasing on federal lands. The letter described the five states as dependent “on revenues from various taxes, royalties, disbursements, and lease payments to fund our schools, community infrastructure, and public services,” and goes on to list statistics about fossil fuel money and education—using some of the same statistics and numbers sent to Baesler by the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
“Thank you, this is fantastic,” Ness emailed Baesler on Feb. 22, with the text of the superintendent letter pasted into the body of the email.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, the organization’s website states, is partially sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s biggest lobbying organization in the U.S. Around the time when the North Dakota Petroleum Council emailed Baesler, API was busy promoting various pieces of the same information on Facebook. API, of course, recently made headlines for coming out in support of a carbon tax, part of a seemingly industry-wide push to present itself as greener and carbon-free.
“Oil and gas executives love to talk about working with the Biden administration to address climate change, but these documents show behind closed doors they are actively working to undermine that very effort,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, in a press release.
An API spokesperson denied any involvement with the state superintendents’ letter to Salon, while Baesler told Salon the information in the letter came from a separate source and that she did not coordinate with industry on the letter.
Big Oil has been diligently working for years to infiltrate the American education system and promote climate denial—with great success. The Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank whose work was supported by the Koch brothers’ network, mailed hundreds of thousands of copies of a book called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to teachers across the country in 2017 full of climate denial talking points. Various oil-funded projects at the national and state levels have supplied nightmarish kids’ materials to educators, including an oil-themed word search and a book about “Petro Pete,” the story of a guy who discovers “what life would be like if we didn’t have petroleum.” (Spoiler: all his stuff is gone.)
It’s easy to laugh at Petro Pete, but this lobbying has real impacts. The petrochemical industry, led by API, has been targeting K-12 education since the 1940s, and the letter from these superintendents reflects how successful the effort to entangle education in oil’s grasp has been. Free lesson plans, books, and other materials and resources—regardless of their source—are probably a welcome addition to the classroom for cash-strapped public school districts and overworked teachers. And many states have tied their educational systems almost exclusively to revenues from fossil fuels, with some disastrous results. Wyoming, for instance, is facing a cavernous education budget shortfall as the coal industry has crashed, while freefalling oil prices have impacted college students from Texas to New Mexico.
Fossil fuel interests know that the time is coming to pay the piper. Part of a just transition will be figuring out how to keep the industry from dragging down state budgets and our poorly funded education system with it.