Concerned that environmental groups were winning the hearts and minds of Texas schoolchildren — filling their heads with statements of the ills of fossil fuels — a politically connected Texas natural gas industry advocacy group devised a plan to fight back.
The group, the Texas Natural Gas Foundation, whose founding members include academics and politicians with ties to the natural gas industry, collaborated with a state energy office and the University of Texas to develop classroom materials for teachers to present both the pros and cons of traditional and alternative energy sources.
Already, at least 20 teachers have been trained in the material and taken it back to their classrooms — including at least one teacher in Austin, one from Round Rock and one from Georgetown — and the Texas Natural Gas Foundation is raising money to promote the material in classrooms across Texas and beyond.
People involved in the project, including the curriculum writers and members of the Natural Gas Foundation, say there was no undue influence. Money to get the $165,000 project off the ground came chiefly from a federal grant and no money appears to have been paid by the natural gas industry to the teachers developing the curriculum.
An investigation by the American-Statesman, however, shows how industry advocates pushed the development of the curriculum and then worked closely with the curriculum writers, briefing them on energy issues and offering edits to the curriculum material.
“Mainly they were reaching for kinder, gentler language,” a UT official explained in an email in June 2016 passing along edits from the natural gas officials.
At least two experts in energy education who were asked by the Statesman to review the material — a teaching guide to approaching energy issues — said it provides incomplete or misleading information about energy that appear out of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook:
• It describes solar and wind power as “perceived” renewable energy sources and says there is a “debate” about whether using renewable sources is better for the environment.
• Instead of contemplating a gradual shift to renewable energy, the curriculum describes the ending of nonrenewable energy as “devastating to us socially as well as economically.”
• There is no mention of climate change or global warming, except to direct teachers to another energy curriculum, one also developed in partnership with oil and gas companies, if they have questions on those topics.
Some of the material “seems to be aiming at misdirection,” said Charles Anderson, a Michigan State University professor of teacher education who specializes in the teaching of science in classrooms. The material is “notable for its lack of actual science content.”
‘Get the bias … out of our schools’
State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, told the Statesman he was moved to address middle school energy education a few years ago, after one of his sons, then in sixth grade, came home from school with some preparatory material for the state standardized test for science.
Only one question, he says, “had anything to do with energy.”
As he remembers it, the question said: “Which of the following fossil fuels causes global warming? Oil, gas, coal or all of the above.”
“It should have been ‘none of the above,’ in my opinion,” said Isaac, whose campaigns for state representative took in $43,501 from the oil and gas industry between 2013 and 2017, according to an analysis by government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It’s such a biased question. It’s making their minds up for them. It’s very negative. You’re striking fear in children that oil and gas and coal are bad.”
And so he and other founding board members of the newly formed Texas Natural Gas Foundation set about developing new classroom material, he said, as “part of my personal effort to get the bias against certain Texas energy resources out of our schools.”
The foundation had formed as the energy landscape in Texas was shifting: Drilling innovations had made natural gas the dominant energy source, but the state also had become the leading wind power producer in the country.
Another founding board member, Mary Bell, at the time head of special projects for David Porter, then-commissioner at the Texas Railroad Commission, the state oil and gas regulatory agency, alerted the board that a U.S. Energy Department grant to update science education material had gone unused.
Soon, after a call from Porter’s office, the State Energy Conservation Office signed on to administer the grant money.
In summer 2015, according to emails, the Natural Gas Foundation’s volunteer executive director, Heather Ball, contacted the University of Texas Regional Collaboratives, a program that provides science and math professional training for schoolteachers across the state. The Texas Natural Gas Foundation wanted a proven partner who could assemble curriculum writers whose work would pass muster with Texas education standards.
“Heather says she has experts on all these topics at her disposal,” Mary Hobbs, the UT Regional Collaboratives coordinator for science initiatives, wrote in an internal email to another UT official on July 28, 2015. “I suggested that maybe we convene a conference of her experts and our writing team members as the official kickoff to the project to update existing units.”
‘Touting the benefits of natural gas’
One day in late January 2016 in an Austin hotel conference room, a trio of instructors convened by UT were briefed by Ken Morgan, another Natural Gas Foundation board member and the director of the Energy Institute at Texas Christian University, about energy resources.
The curriculum writers, college professors and educational consultants who had served as science teachers, were selected by UT for their experience and dependability, Hobbs told the Statesman.
Morgan, a geologist and civil engineer by training whose institute’s board of advisers is composed almost entirely of gas company executives, told the Statesman that in his four decades as a professor he has noticed a “drift away from appreciation of all our energy resources.”
Many of his college students, he said, “think the industry is only about money and not always about having a public good in mind and not taking the environment into consideration.”
“Those are pretty easy things to tag onto. But if you’re not careful, you start thinking negative. What if you consider all the countries without energy? What if you consider a continent like Africa?” Morgan said.
Morgan — now an informal science adviser to Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, who has rejected claims that fossil fuel emissions contribute to climate change — said it’s time for “all hands on deck to push for energy education in the state of Texas. We should push for energy education through our teachers, rather than coming out and brainwashing the students of Texas.”
Also sitting in on the meeting were officials from UT, the executive director of the Texas Natural Gas Foundation and Isaac.
No environmental groups or other experts were on the agenda to speak.
But one of the curriculum writers, Carolyn Schroeder, said there was no pressure from the natural gas industry to promote natural gas.
“They felt like natural gas is the best and it would fall out and kids would see it had these advantages,” said Schroeder, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University who had a three-decade career as a teacher. She and the other curriculum writers were paid roughly $6,500 apiece to do the work. “They felt like if we presented a balanced picture of all the resources, it would rise to the top because of its cleanliness and its availability.”
Hobbs, the UT administrator who helped organize the partnership, said, “We were not subject to much if any pressure at all, although as I mentioned it seemed like there was interest in touting the benefits of natural gas.”
Todd Hutner, another official with the UT STEM Center who was helping oversee the project, said the group “didn’t feel pressure to misrepresent the science or the social aspects of the energy situation.”
“I was very clear we would not be part of a propaganda machine,” said Hutner, who is a former high school science teacher. “If we’re going to do this, energy is not a simple problem to solve. We can’t just say we’re not going to use gasoline starting tomorrow. The world is going to come to a pretty screeching halt. It’s important for students to understand those complexities. If we got rid of all oil, that’s going to have some impact on the lives of people in Texas. I think global warming is a thing, pollution is a problem, and we should be moving towards solutions to our energy problem. But we shouldn’t bury trade-offs to make extreme moves tomorrow.”
In March 2016, Isaac and Morgan laid out their aims in an article in Shale magazine.
“We recently took part in a discussion with a group of Texas science teachers about the need for an energy curriculum in Texas public schools,” they wrote. Science teachers “weren’t aware that renewable energy technologies also have environmental impacts” — singling out the rare earth metals mined in China for hybrid car batteries, wind power generators and solar panels.
The article also said, “The link between energy and quality of life is missing in the discussion.” Most children, they observed, “have no idea what it takes to power their cell phones, provide them with clean water and allow Amazon to deliver their games.”
That April, as the curriculum writers were drafting the material, two of the three writers traveled to Fort Worth, at Morgan’s invitation, to listen to a presentation by Alex Epstein, author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” which argues that fossil fuel use has led to a wide range of improvements for humankind, including life expectancy. Epstein, who has argued in U.S. Senate testimony that rising carbon dioxide levels “benefit plants and Americans,” had been invited to the TCU campus by Morgan’s institute.
‘I’ve never been bought by any oil company’
The curriculum, which was specifically drafted to follow standards set by the State Board of Education so that it could be used in classrooms across the state, includes engaging classroom exercises such as asking students to write up infomercials about an energy they’re assigned — anything from nuclear to solar.
The material touts traditional energy sources and says there is a “debate” as to the renewability of some energy sources, making some of the same rare-earth metal arguments that Morgan had laid out.
“When we consider the manufacture of components used in some renewable energy sources such as solar or wind, we find they are not completely renewable,” the material reads. “Additionally, the carbon footprint of some renewable energy sources may exceed the footprint of some energy sources considered to be non-renewable.”
That subsection concludes, according to a version posted on the UT website: “With recent discoveries and technological advancements, some non-renewable energy sources may be more plentiful than previously thought and be able to be harnessed without devastating the environment.”
But the same version of the curriculum posted on the Texas Natural Gas Foundation website includes a change in that language: “able to be harnessed while protecting the environment,” it says.
Ball, the natural gas foundation executive director, said that after UT finished up its piece of the project in 2016, her group “volunteered to maintain and expand the information contained in the units, as well as collaborate with Texas Christian University to provide workshops for teachers on how to use them.”
Even in the first version, the open-ended language is misleading, said Anderson, the Michigan State professor who studies grade-school science instruction. The discussion of renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources “reflects a typical ‘doubt is our product’ strategy,” said Anderson. “Everything in that section is factually correct, but it avoids the main environmental question about energy sources, which is not whether they are renewable but the environmental impact of their production and use.”
The curriculum material is “painting a picture that there are many shortcomings with renewables and that devastation of our social and economic systems will result from switching away from the use of nonrenewables,” said Jay Banner, a UT geologist who runs the university’s Environmental Science Institute. “That’s not a very forward-looking way to work the problem of our energy future.”
The author of that section — Lisa Bellows, chairwoman of the science division of North Central Texas College in Gainesville — declined interview requests and declined to give examples of how “the carbon footprint of some renewable energy sources may exceed the footprint of some energy sources considered to be non-renewable.”
“I’ve never been bought by any oil company, energy company or anyone else for an unethical, immoral, or tainted reason,” she wrote in an email. “I didn’t accept money from nor was I influenced by the Natural Gas folks.”
‘We put all the information out there’
Over two days in late June 2016, 20 middle school science teachers, from Wichita Falls to San Angelo, from Waxahachie to Conroe, descended on Austin, each teacher receiving up to $500 to pay for their time and travel, according to budget information, to attend a workshop in Austin on the curriculum material. The program was cloaked with the imprimatur of the University of Texas; the agenda for the event did not mention the Texas Natural Gas Foundation’s participation in the project.
Dissemination of energy curriculum materials developed in conjunction with the oil and gas industry is not unique to Texas. In Oklahoma and Kansas, teachers have learned how to teach math and science through oil-related lessons, such as calculating the mileage of tanker trucks.
And the National Energy Education Development Project, a nonprofit whose sponsors are primarily oil and gas companies, provides supplementary science materials for teachers nationally. Students learn about “cleaner-coal technology” and “research nuclear energy as a growing option for generating the nation’s electricity,” according to the project’s website.
The Texas Natural Gas Foundation has turned its attention to raising money to spread the curriculum material. One solicitation calls for training 275 teachers in the next year.
“A middle school science teacher typically teaches 100 students, which means TCU would reach 27,500 middle school students in the first year with Texas Energy Education Project curriculum,” says the solicitation. “We need the involvement of the Texas energy industry to make this project a success.”
Another fundraising note observed: “Although the units will focus on Texas energy, they are designed to be picked up and customized by other states.”
An Oct. 10, 2017, Facebook post by the Texas Natural Gas Foundation shows Isaac appearing to accept a check: “Thanks to #british petroleum for donating to TXNG to increase public awareness & support of TX energy resources and develop STEM curriculum.”
Texas Natural Gas Foundation officials said they had hoped to host another workshop this summer; instead, with fundraising slower than expected, they are now aiming for next summer.
Terri Henry, one of the teachers at the June 2016 summit, said the curriculum material echoed things she was already teaching at Benold Middle School in the Georgetown school district. A town hall exercise, for example, in which students are assigned different parts during an energy debate reflected a classroom activity in which students hash out which two types of power they want for their own city.
“We put all the information out there for the kids, and they learn about it all equally,” she said.
Asher Price has covered energy and the environment for the American-Statesman since 2006. In numerous stories, he has explored the close relationship between top state officials and the oil and gas industry. Most recently, he examined a decision by commissioners overseeing the state oil and gas regulatory agency to forgo penalizing a gas pipeline operator over a pipeline leak, contrary to the recommendations of agency staff. He’s the co-author of “The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power.”